Blustering Colombo winds up the United Nations once too often

I thought it would come to nothing, but I was proven wrong. I underestimated the power of Colombo’s bluster to lose friends and influence where it mattered. The UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva has voted to conduct an independent investigation into Sri Lanka’s conduct of the closing years of its long and bloody war against murderous Tamil Tiger separatists.

The UN is a docile creature, but Sri Lanka registered its contempt for its work by pulling at its tail one too many times. Right to the end, as the UN session opened last week, Colombo was ordering the arrest of human rights activists interviewing survivors of the war, as suspected terrorists.

Detainees Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen Mahesan were just the kind of civil society observers that the UN’s independent investigators would approach once it landed. The threat was not lost on either Sri Lanka’s rights NGOs or the UN itself. UN senior human rights official Navi Pillay described the arrests as ‘provocative’ at a time when the world body was meeting to decide further action.

And provocative it was, to Sri Lanka’s disadvantage, with the members of the UNHRC voting 23-12, with 12 abstentions for the UN investigation today, and a $1.4m budget to run it. Sri Lanka’s ambassador, Ravinatha Aryasinha, slammed the resolution as a “serious breach of international law,an infringement of state sovereignty and (a) pre-judgement of the outcome of domestic processes.”

Yet a less confrontational approach might have seen off what Colombo saw, not wholly unreasonably, as a challenge to its sovereignty. Certainly plenty of other states saw it the same way, including its Asian partners China and Japan, the latter abstaining from Thursday’s vote, as did South Africa, whose handling of its own post-conflict reconciliation, accountability and human rights issues sets the gold standard for the process.

But the country’s war leader, President Mahinda Rajapakse, wanted his victory over the terrorists polished and shining a light on his post-war political future. No question regarding the conduct of the war was to be easily tolerated, whether by his own citizens or the UN.

Colombo has treated the UN with disdain from the start of its appalling final assault on the Tigers north-eastern stronghold five years ago, when Tamil civilians, aid workers and terrorists alike were blasted by government forces across a virtual free-fire zone. Maybe tens of thousands died.

United Nations officials had held silent during the final assault itself in 2009, but could not continue to do so as Colombo blindsided its calls for over three years for an evidence based process that would hold both fighters on both sides accountable for atrocities.

Twice the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva urged Sri Lanka in both 2012 and 2013 to investigate the events at the end of the war. Pillay herself found that the country’s own investigations were not delivering results, or its conclusions were ignored. What was lacking, she said, was not capacity, but political will.

In February she reported that continuing problems, including “continued militarisation and compulsory land acquisition… shrinking space for civil society and the media, rising religious intolerance and the undermining of independent institutions, including the judiciary.”

The stakes were high for the UN, which had called its own silence in 2009 as “a grave failure,” criticising staff who “did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility”.

It triggered a shift in policy that requires UN officials to report rights violations and engage in just the kind of “quiet diplomacy” it has tried and failed with in Sri Lanka – or raise the violations with the UN in public – as it finally did on Thursday.

There were concessions. The UN’s proposed time period for investigation – 2002-09 – mirrored Colombo’s own choice of timespan in its own investigations, which had itself been largely ignored by Rajapakse’s government.

Former Indonesian attorney-general Marzuki Darusman, US law professor Steven Ratner and South African human rights campaigner Yasmin Sooka served as the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka in 2010-11. Jointly commenting before the vote they conceded the proposed investigation team lacked the formality of the UN’s freestanding commission of inquiry on Syria.

“With such a record, the denial by the government and LTTE (Tamil Tiger) sympathizers can finally be addressed, and the task of justice for Sri Lanka’s victims can enter a new stage,” the trio noted. But options to qualify the scope of the proposed mission generally ran flat up against Colombo’s blanket rejection strategy.

Colombo will not readily change its mind. The New York Times reported Rajapaksa ‘s clear displeasure while campaigning for upcoming provincial elections. “I don’t care if we win or lose in Geneva,” he said. “I don’t give a pittance. I know the people here will ensure our victory.”

The hardest of hardship postings awaits the UN official tasked to lead the investigation in Sri Lanka to come. It’s hoped that Sri Lanka will accept that it has come out worst in a diplomatic fight, and cooperate with the investigation. Most importantly there has to be no interference or intimidation of civil society groups who choose to cooperate, whether or not Colombo does. It doesn’t look very likely.

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