Sri Lanka could be let off the hook at UNHRC

Despite heavy lobbying by human rights groups against giving any reprieve to Sri Lanka, the South Asian island nation is likely to be let off the hook at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) due to exigencies of international politics, diplomats stationed in Colombo believe. The expectation here is that Sri Lanka will be given more time to meet its commitments contained in the UNHRC resolution which it co-sponsored in September 2015.

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (R) and President Maithripala Sirisena stand next to each other during cricketer Kumar Sangakkara's retirement ceremony, August 24, 2015. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte/Files
Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (R) and President Maithripala Sirisena stand next to each other during cricketer Kumar Sangakkara’s retirement ceremony, August 24, 2015. Reuters

The Western nations, which enjoy disproportionate clout in the 47-member body, appear to be keen to see that the “accommodative” Sri Lankan government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is protected against mounting pressure from the Joint Opposition led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, under whose Presidency (during 2005-2014), Sri Lanka had lurched towards China and assumed a virulently anti-West stance, raising hackles in security Establishments across the Western world.

India, which felt most threatened by the Chinese intrusion into the economic and strategic space in the island, is perhaps even more keen than the West in protecting the existing Sri Lankan regime. For it was during the Rajapaksa regime that China was well on its way to taking control of Sri Lanka’s harbours to integrate them with its String of Pearls project to encircle the world in economic and strategic terms. A Chinese bid to take over a part of the Colombo port was seen as an unfriendly act because Colombo port is a major transshipment hub for India. Alarm bells went off in New Delhi when a Chinese nuclear submarine was allowed to sneak into Colombo port without its knowledge in 2014 to symbolically coincide with the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

However, the West and India were gratified when in 2014, the then opposition led by Sirisena and Wickremesinghe began a vigorous campaign against Rajapaksa’s government attacking it on all fronts, including his bid to “sell” Sri Lanka’s strategic assets to the Chinese for “thirty pieces of silver.” The Tamils, who felt repressed by the Rajapaksa regime’s bid to entrench Sinhalese-majority power after the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels, and the denial of justice for crimes allegedly committed by the military during the war, sided with the opposition as it promised reconciliation, relief and justice. The Muslims, who had come under attack by Sinhalese-Buddhist expansionists backed by the Rajapaksa government, joined the anti-Rajapalsa bandwagon to defeat Rajapaksa in the January 2015 presidential and the August 2015 parliamentary elections.

Upon coming to power, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine suspended work on all Chinese funded and executed projects running into billions of dollars on allegations of over-charging and pay-offs. Subsequently ,the government re-negotiated agreements on these projects to get a better deal. At the same time, the government stopped anti-West and anti-UN propaganda, which had a tendency to descend to indecent levels during the Rajapaksa regime. In marked contrast to Rajapaksa, who treated the UNHRC with contempt, the new regime decided to cooperate and even co-sponsored a resolution, setting for itself specific goals in the area of human rights and ethnic reconciliation.

Given Colombo’s lacklustre record in the 18 months since the UNHRC resolution, the West and the UNHRC have reasons to be unhappy. But after pointing out the shortcomings, Western and UN officials have always added that some progress has been made, and that they are encouraging Sri Lanka to keep to the set path without wavering. During a recent to Sri Lanka, a bi-partisan team from the US House of Representatives hardly spoke about the human rights issue, preferring to talk of economic development. President Sirisena in turn assured them that Sri Lanka was eager to host US investors.

On its part, India has distanced itself from the ethnic issue. Its Foreign Secretary, S Jaishankar, told Tamil leaders recently that they should make use of the existing democratic freedoms; participate in governance; and cooperate in the economic development of the Tamil areas, without holding all matters hostage to a single issue, namely, a “satisfactory political solution.”

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is under Indian influence, has also modified its stand on the Sri Lankan government. It now says that the UNHRC could give Colombo more time but it must be “under the strictest conditions.”

The UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Prince Zeid, though a doughty fighter for human  rights, has also gone soft on the Sri Lankan issue to the extent of even saying that whether the proposed Judicial Mechanism to investigate and try war crimes cases will have foreign judges or not is to be decided by the “sovereign” government of Sri Lanka, thus indirectly agreeing to the Sirisena government’s decision not to have foreign judges but only foreign investigative expertise.

Rights lobby               

Having sensed that the US, UK ,Germany and India would join to present a mild resolution on Sri Lanka, giving Colombo more time to implement the September 2015 resolution, international and domestic human rights groups as well as Tamil Diaspora organizations are on a warpath against giving any such concession to Sri Lanka. They charge that Colombo has been using the goodwill and patience of the West to procrastinate, and play to its Sinhalese majoritarian constituency, while hoodwinking the minority Tamils with grand declarations about reconciliation mechanisms while studiously avoiding concrete action on any of them.

The smaller Sri Lankan Tamil parties and the Tamil Diaspora groups are sending delegations to address the 47-member countries at the UNHRC to say that no moratorium should be given to Colombo, and that the 2015 resolution should not be diluted in any way, especially in the matter of foreign judges in the war crimes courts.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have pointed out that they are concerned about Colombo’s refusal to have foreign judges; the non-repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act; the flaws in the act on Office of Missing Persons (OMP); the absence of Security Forces reform.

The Tamil parties and Diaspora groups point out that the Sri Lankan military still hold 67,000 acres in the Northern Province, as only 2,500 acres had been returned since the end of the war. In Ampara district in the Eastern Province, Muslims say that 2800 acres seized from them during the war, are yet to be returned. Officially, 65,000 people have gone missing since 1994 and the Paranagama Commission on Enforced Disappearances has received 20,000 complaints. The Office of Missing Persons will only be another fact collection agency as it has no power to investigate and prosecute. And the OMP itself is yet to be set up. This is because the majority Sinhalese fear that scientifically collected data could be used against the armed forces in the proposed war crimes court.

The Tamils want foreign judges as they feel that the Sri Lankan judiciary, dominated by the Sinhalese, will not indict military personnel as these are also mostly Sinhalese. But the majority Sinhalese feel that foreign judges will be biased against the armed forces. The Tamils also point out that the government is giving  priority to drafting a new constitution and not to setting up war crimes judicial mechanisms. They charge that this is a delaying tactic.

But all these facts are not expected to influence the UNHRC because, at the end of the day, the exigencies of international and regional politics will determine the nature of the resolution.

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