Janel Smith explains why an international inquiry mechanism to investigate allegations of human rights violations in Sri Lanka could strengthen anti-Western sentiment and reinforce existing ethno-nationalist tensions in the country, leaving all involved parties with few options for alternative processes to address concerns. Read part two of this blog, which examines anti-Western sentiment in Sri Lanka and its implications for proposed UNHRC resolutions.
It is expected that this March when the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meets to assess Sri Lanka’s progress on addressing human rights abuses that a resolution will be proposed calling for the establishment of an international inquiry mechanism to investigate the alleged violations of human rights and humanitarian law pertaining to actions undertaken in order to end Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009. The Sri Lankan civil war refers to the war fought from 1983 to 2009 between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant organisation that sought to create an independent Tamil state called Tamil Eelam in the northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka, which culminated in the defeat of the LTTE by Sri Lanka’s military forces in May 2009. The last military offensive was characterised by heavy violence and accusations of human rights abuses carried out by both GOSL and LTTE, such as the shelling of civilian areas and the blocking of food and medicine for people trapped inside the conflict zone (Vimalarajah and Cheran, 2010). According to the UN, at least 7,000 civilians were killed in the last five months of fighting and approximately 250,000 non-combatants were detained in camps (Francis, 2010).
In a 20-page report from the UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay released in February it was reported that recommendations to establish an international inquiry will be put forth to the twenty-fifth session of the UNHRC. The resolution, if introduced, will represent the third consecutive resolution faced by the GOSL relating to accusations of war crimes and human rights atrocities committed during the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war, and allegations of ongoing systemic abuse of Tamils by the GOSL since its military victory over the LTTE. The last resolution passed during the twenty-second session of the UNHRC in 2013 called for an independent and credible investigation but stopped short of calling for an international inquiry. Nevertheless, given accusations in Sri Lanka of the erosion of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary in light of the 18th Amendment and impeachment of the Chief Justice, it is considered highly unlikely that the UN will accept solely a domestic investigation as a credible way forward at the ongoing session of the UNHRC from 3-28 March 2014.
In addition to the report of the UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Western countries, spearheaded by the United States and United Kingdom, are also reportedly planning to propose a similar resolution that would pave the way for the establishment of an international investigatory mechanism if the GOSL is found to have failed to make satisfactory progress in addressing the alleged human right violations. According to US Secretary of State John Kerry, “our concern about this ongoing situation has led the United States to support another UN Human Rights Council resolution at the March session.”
For his part, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced after travelling to Sri Lanka in November 2013 to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that the UK would give the GOSL until March 2014 to adequately address calls for an independent investigation into human rights abuses committed at the end of the war and ongoing concerns for the treatment of Tamil people in its aftermath. If the GOSL fails to satisfy the UK, Cameron has said that the British government will use its position on the UNHRC to “push for an international inquiry into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka” through a call for a “full, credible and independent international inquiry.” At a press conference in November Cameron asserted that such a resolution “is about bringing justice and closure and healing to this country which now has a chance of a much brighter future.” However, contrary to both the US and UK’s aims to bring ‘closure and healing’ to Sri Lanka the outcomes of any subsequent UNHRC resolution could in fact result in the West further ‘losing’ Sri Lanka. Such a resolution threatens to reinforce antagonism between political actors in Sri Lanka, the international community, and those non-state actors believed to have ties to the West; to more deeply entrench existing anti-Western sentiment across Sri Lanka; and to push Sri Lanka increasingly closer to ‘illiberal’ regimes such as China and Russia.
For its part, the GOSL remains opposed to the any UNHRC resolution, asserting that the international community has no role in Sri Lanka’s domestic matters and that its actions instead represent the West’s seeking to exert neo-imperial influence in the sovereign affairs of Sri Lanka. According to the GOSL it is not only Western powers but also international and domestic non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in Sri Lanka who are central co-conspirators bent on ‘punishing’ the Sri Lankan state and bringing it under an international intervention, or worse, feeding into the forces of separatism emanating from both within the Sri Lankan diaspora and the Tamil-dominated Northern Province of Sri Lanka.
In addition, the recently elected Northern Provincial Council, which represents the provincial council for the Northern Province in Sri Lanka, has passed its own resolution calling for the UN to establish an international war crimes investigation, pitting it squarely against the GOSL. This suggests that the GOSL, Northern Provincial Council, and members of the international community including the US, UK and UN, could be increasingly adopting inflexible positions in relation to the allegations of war crimes and humanitarian law violations. These positions would present few opportunities for manoeuvrability or alternative processes to be established that might satisfy all of the parties involved. Instead such entrenchment signifies a retreat into rigid positionalities that could further antagonise existing ethno-nationalist tensions and anti-Western sentiment within Sri Lanka.
Janel Smith recently completed her PhD in LSE’s Department of International Relations.
Francis, K., (18 December 2010). ‘Sri Lanka allows UN to “share” war crime evidence,’ Associated Press.
Vimalarajah L., and, R. Cheran, (2010). Empowering Diasporas: The Dynamics of Post-war Transnational Tamil Politics. Berlin: Berghof Conflict Group.