Ban demands ‘a pound of flesh’. Is this a fair trial?

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

Despite strong opposition from the Sri Lankan government, UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon has appointed a three-member Advisory Panel on Sri Lanka. The exercise is viewed by many as a precursor to an international war crimes investigation on the Sri Lankan conflict. The source from which the UNSG derives his mandate to initiate this inquiry remains unclear. There was neither a UN Human Rights Council resolution nor any UN Security Council endorsement for this action. Ban only refers to the joint statement issued by him and President Rajapaksa at the war’s end – a 760-word document dealing with many issues that concluded saying: “The Secretary General underlined the importance of an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. The government of Sri Lanka will take measures to address those grievances.”

If Sri Lanka has fallen short of satisfying the UNSG with regard to “measures taken,” does this justify imposing a hotly opposed, unwelcome move that places a lot of stress on a small country struggling to pick up the pieces after a protracted, debilitating internal conflict? A question that needs to be asked is whether this pound-of-flesh attitude of the UNSG and his western backers with regard to “accountability,” will punish the very victims of conflict for whom they say their hearts bleed.

The fabric of democracy in this country has taken a beating with the measures that came with war, such as restrictions on civil liberties, emergency regulations and heavy militarization. But changes are also beginning to happen now. The main Opposition UNP is in the throes of redefining itself and may soon have a new leader capable of democratically challenging the government. The democratic Tamil opposition parties seem to have buried the hatchet and started talking to each other. Perhaps the long-awaited voice of “moderate Tamil opinion,” silenced for decades by the LTTE, will now make itself heard. A new dynamic is just beginning to be set in motion.

Sri Lanka has already taken an initiative to “address grievances” by appointing a “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.” The thinking of the groups backing the UNSG seems to be that a Sri Lanka-appointed Commission’s inquiry is unlikely be fair. (It has been pre-judged.) Now what’s the likelihood that the UNSG panel’s inquiry will be fair? Not much, if one considers the context in which it was created, and the web of circumstances that will surround its deliberations.

The assurance that allegations of human rights violations of “both sides” will be examined by the panel does little to balance the scales. There are no Tamil Tiger leaders left to be prosecuted, so clearly it’s the government that’s in the dock. There will be a strong push from pro-Eelam sections of the Tamil diaspora to make allegations against the government they still seek to undermine from overseas. But there will be hardly any incentive for the government to make charges against an enemy that no longer exists, to be punished. The push to set up the panel has itself come from western states that are hosts to the diaspora Tamils. There has been pressure on these governments from pro-Tiger sections to “punish” Sri Lanka.

It is common knowledge that the LTTE runs a sophisticated propaganda outfit with well-orchestrated operations around the world. The propaganda war still continues though the LTTE is defeated militarily. Will the advisory panel have any way of detecting false allegations and fabricated evidence that can be submitted in the safe knowledge that sources will be withheld? Will they ever know whether human rights groups that submit findings have been similarly manipulated? Can the panelists themselves, eminent though they may be, claim to be totally unaffected by the climate of bias against Sri Lanka that prevails internationally, as a result of the barrage of LTTE propaganda generated over three decades?
The number of civilians killed in the latter stages of this war has been a subject of huge controversy.

owards the end the international media were relying on figures supplied from behind the battle lines. It was revealed later that these figures had been “doctored.” (The doctors in fact gave a press briefing in Colombo after the war’s end, where they described how they had been forced to exaggerate numbers owing to the LTTE’s gun at their heads.) However these figures that appeared in media reports at that time are nothing compared to the numbers that are now in circulation. Having started out with the UN’s estimate of 7,000 (for January to April 2009) they continue to snowball AFTER the war’s end (by modest increments of about 13,000 at a time, or multiples thereof) to reach astronomical heights (75,000, last time I checked).

Now had there really been tragedy of these proportions, wouldn’t the IDPs and democratic Tamil political leaders in this country be talking about it non-stop? The imposition of this advisory panel on Sri Lanka has come together with the imminent withdrawal of the EU’s GSP+ trade benefits, and now, the news that the US too is to review its GSP trade facility.

It’s hard to avoid the impression that Sri Lanka has been singled out for some very special treatment by the west lately. Has this country become the chosen guinea-pig of some western powers eager to test how far the boundaries of a vulnerable state’s sovereignty can be pushed, in the international arena? If the argument is that human rights are everybody’s business and not just that of the states concerned, then it is strange that this angst for war crimes investigations etc. does not manifest itself in relation to the more high-octane conflicts raging in other parts of the world such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Western powers have embroiled themselves in these countries to pursue their own strategic aims, whereas Sri Lanka was fighting an insurgency within its borders to protect its own security—something that citizens expect of a government.

There were many who thought that Sri Lanka was being charge-sheeted for defeating the world’s deadliest terrorist organization. Perhaps they were mistaken. Perhaps Sri Lanka’s crime is simply that it is not a western client-state with a trillion dollars worth of oil or mineral deposits in its territory.
The writer is a senior freelance journalist.

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Ban demands ‘a pound of flesh’. Is this a fair trial?


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