Columns - From The Sidelines

US-backed UNHRC resolution - a fait accompli?
By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

The recent warning by two high ranking US officials in Colombo, of a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council asserting that Sri Lanka had not done enough to implement the LLRC's recommendations and address accountability issues, does not come as that much of a surprise.

The Western powers and organisations that rallied against Sri Lanka at the 2009 sessions of the Council, where Sri Lanka foiled an attempt to pass a previous resolution, have only been biding their time and waiting for the right moment to renew their campaign. It became clear that a move to haul Sri Lanka over the coals was afoot, when Canada drafted the text of a resolution calling for an "interactive dialogue" on the LLRC report - alongside the UN Secretary General's Advisory Panel Report - during the UNHRC session in September 2011. This was even before the final LLRC document had seen the light of day.

The report of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was tabled in parliament in December and is now in the public domain. Whatever criticisms may have been levelled against it earlier, now that it is out, it is clear from this document that the Commission and its deliberations were not, as some sought to make out, a "whitewash," or merely a governmental device to forestall punishment by the international community. The careful methodology of the commissioners, their mature, holistic approach in carrying out their mandate and dealing with the complex material before them, and the Report's widely acclaimed recommendations, fly in the face of such conclusions.

The report has made it harder for those aligned against Sri Lanka -- mainly in the western hemisphere that hosts significant numbers of the Tamil diaspora -- to prosecute their 'cause.' One of the outcomes of the report seems to have been a shift away from the previous insistence on an "international" mechanism to investigate alleged war crimes. The emphasis now is on the call for speedy implementation of the LLRC report's recommendations, and "credible, independent" domestic mechanisms to address human rights and accountability issues. The governments of the US, Britain, Canada now adopt this stance, though they continue to point out the report's shortcomings. India and the Commonwealth Secretary General are among the parties who welcomed the report's recommendations and endorse the non-interfering approach.

Those who still insist on an "international investigation" to address accountability issues include the human rights watchdogs Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and, locally, the Tamil National Alliance. All of them had refused to make representations before the LLRC, though invited. The TNA has been among the harshest critics of the report, alleging that its findings "offend the dignity of the victims." They say that "genuine reconciliation" requires a "credible accountability process that ensures the right of victims to truth, justice and reparations."

It is difficult to see the TNA's protestations as anything but duplicitous, considering how tongue-tied they were earlier, with regard to the horrendous abuse suffered by these same victims at the hands of the LTTE for 30 long years. Calls for "genuine" reconciliation, if they are to be taken seriously, would need to flow from equally genuine concern, and not crocodile tears.

It is of interest that those who still insist on an "international inquiry" into alleged war crimes are also those who persist in invoking the controversial UNSG Advisory Panel Report to back their claims. This document is seen by many in Sri Lanka to have been influenced by input from the LTTE rump, its proxies and sympathizers. The three-member Panel never visited Sri Lanka. The 20-year ban on revealing its testimonies makes it impossible to establish whether many of the report's allegations may have been misrepresentations or fabrications.

It may be noted that the TNA asserted a more confrontational, less accommodating stance in relation to its negotiations with the government and the post-war reconciliation process, after the release of the UNSG's report. This in itself is an indication of how unhelpful the UNSG Panel's exercise has been, in advancing Sri Lanka's reconciliation process.

Getting back to the US envoys' visit, one of the comments made by Assistant Secretary Robert O' Blake at the briefing held with Under Secretary Maria Otero, was that he hoped the dialogue between the government and the TNA would resume, and "that then whatever is agreed can be discussed in the context of the Parliamentary Select Committee." This seems to echo the TNA position that seeks agreement on key demands before participating in the Parliamentary Select Committee. The US officials had met a TNA delegation on the first day of their visit.

Another 'echo' relating to the US position may be heard in the UNP's response to the LLRC report.
The gist of the US officials' message was that the US would support a resolution in the UNHRC in March that demands a road map on reconciliation. Media reports have speculated that a deadline for implementation would be part of the resolution, thereby making it binding on Sri Lanka. Such a time-bound formulation could present a trap from which the country may find it difficult to extricate itself.
UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe's response to the LLRC report tabled in parliament on February 10, has also reportedly asked the government "to announce a detailed road map for implementing the recommendations of the LLRC, together with a clearly stated time frame."

This overlap between the US comments and the TNA position on the one hand, and the US proposed resolution and the UNP's recommendations, on the other, is not altogether surprising. The US, Wickremesinghe and the TNA have tended to sing from the same hymn sheet on previous occasions as well.

With a challenging situation anticipated at the UNHRC in March, the government has rather suddenly announced the appointment of an Independent Police Commission - one of the LLRC's recommendations. This is in keeping with the 18th amendment, and not under the terms of the 17th amendment which initially introduced the Independent Commissions. Under the 18th amendment all the appointments are made by the President, after approval by a toothless Parliamentary Council. So how 'independent' can these Commissions be?

Another recent announcement related to the appointment by the Army Commander of a Court of Inquiry to look into the LLRC's revelations on civilian casualties during the last stages of the war.

One would hope that these moves were not merely knee-jerk responses aimed at mitigating possible trouble that might lie ahead in the international arena. The government can better formulate its approach to reconciliation by being more sensitive and responsive to concerned parties and stakeholders within the country, who are vocal enough, rather than simply reacting to external pressures that may be driven by hidden agendas.

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