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UNSG’s report: The thin end of the wedge in Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process?

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

There are no major surprises in the leaked report by the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka, going by the sections of it that have been published in a newspaper. The bias in it was entirely predictable, considering the manner in which the Panel was set up and the circumstances in which it worked.

The report commences with an admission that the allegations it speaks of, are not proven. (“The panel found credible allegations which, if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law were committed …”) This in itself would seem to place the report in a dubious light. However the authors’ intention here may be to lay the groundwork for demanding that the allegations be taken to an international court in order to be ‘proved’ or ‘disproved.’
Another reason why the allegations are described as ‘unproven’ may be that the panel had no option but to go on the face value of submissions made to them, whose authenticity is questionable. There is no indication that they used any methodology to screen out false allegations.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon

One of the key demands of this report is to press for the UN Human Rights Council to ‘reconsider’ its May 2009 resolution on Sri Lanka, which shot down an attempt by certain pressure groups to institute a ‘war crimes’ investigation. Linked to this is the ‘recommendation’ that the Secretary General establish an “independent international mechanism” to conduct its own investigations into alleged violations (in other words, a war crimes investigation).

Allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka formed the main motif in the agitation launched by Tamil diaspora activists bent on revenge following the LTTE’s defeat. They aggressively lobbied politicians and human rights groups to this end in their countries of domicile in the west. Like the attempted UNHRC resolution that failed, the push for the UNSG’s action too came not from aggrieved parties within Sri Lanka, but from these same quarters overseas.

The list of damning allegations against the GoSL contained in the report seem to be designed to build up a case for this recommended ‘international mechanism’ (how else could the diaspora retain its leverage in Sri Lanka?) while paying lip service to the GoSL’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. External Affairs Minister G.L. Pieris has vehemently condemned the UNSG’s declared intent to publish his panel’s report before the LLRC even concludes its deliberations. The Panel members also appear to have exceeded their mandate. Their remit was merely to ‘advise’ the UNSG and not to conduct investigations themselves. But the report lists a litany of atrocities in graphic detail (mainly attributed to the GoSL) as if they were fact.

What is worse is that some of the allegations paint a picture that is the exact opposite of the reality that prevailed. For example it is alleged that the government deliberately blocked humanitarian aid and essential supplies to civilians trapped in the Wanni. In fact the government regularly briefed both the diplomatic community and the media on the delivery of food, medical and other supplies to the conflict area – a responsibility it shouldered throughout the war, despite the knowledge that 25 to 30 per cent of these supplies were routinely hijacked by the LTTE. The government could not have lied about this aspect of its operations since it was carried out in tandem with organizations such as the World Food Program and International Committee of the Red Cross. Media reports show that a consignment of food was delivered by the ICRC as late as May 9 2009 – just 10 days before the war’s end.

The most diabolical aspect of the charges, including those relating to civilian killings, is that violations were committed deliberately. Battlefield conduct might have fallen short of perfect, and civilian deaths may have occurred during shelling, but it is difficult to see how the claim that civilians were ‘persecuted’ intentionally can be supported. It is very strange that this charge is levelled at the Sri Lanka Army and not the LTTE, under whose jackboot people suffered for three decades. Where were the learned members of the Panel all those years?

The fact that security forces enabled 300,000 civilians held hostage by the LTTE to escape at the tail end of the conflict was seen by many as a spectacular achievement. But the report blames the government for being ill-prepared for the massive exodus, and finds fault with the manner in which IDPs were treated, the conditions in which they were accommodated, the screening process etc. etc. Going by the Panel’s nit picking attitude, one would think the soldiers were conducting something as simple as a roll call at a school assembly. It is known that on at least one occasion a suicide bomber who mingled with the escapees attacked a screening centre, killing and injuring dozens of soldiers and civilians.
The Panel’s blinkered vision does not seem to allow the complexities of such challenges faced on the ground, to enter its calculations.

R. Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance, the main Tamil opposition group in parliament, has made a statement saying the report “is an irrefutable confirmation of the accounts of the events as reported by us to Parliament as and when they occurred.” The question arises as to whether this correspondence that Mr Sampanthan finds between the allegations contained in the report, and the TNA’s reports in parliament, is owing to the fact that the information came from the same source – seeing that the TNA, at the time, was the known proxy of the LTTE?

The TNA, having hailed the report, appears to have adopted a more confrontational stance. This comes at a time when the government has launched talks with them on arriving at a negotiated political solution to Tamil issues. It would be most unfortunate if as a consequence of the report, the TNA veers away from the recently initiated path of dialogue, upon which so much hope was pinned by both Tamil and Sinhalese constituencies.

The basis for the UNSG Panel’s exercise is said to be a need for ‘accountability’ relating to the manner in which Sri Lanka fought the war against the LTTE. Considering the many conflict situations that prevail around the world at present, it can be seen that this demand for ‘accountability’ is being applied by the west in a very selective manner, to serve its own interests. In the case of Sri Lanka, it amounts to nothing but gratuitous meddling in the affairs of a sovereign state, under the guise of a concern for human rights. This hypocritical western crusade conveniently ties in with the revenge agenda of the LTTE, in its new overseas-based configuration.

The question that the UNSG and his western backers, human rights groups and the western media need to ask themselves is, has this project contributed one iota to the cause of reconciliation between communities in Sri Lanka? Or has it driven the thin end of the wedge in destroying that fragile exercise that has barely gotten off the ground?

The writer is a senior freelance journalist

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