A third US-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka goes down to the wire at a vote in the UN Human Rights Council in less than three weeks. With the draft of that resolution in circulation among the council’s member states, it is now lobbying-time for stakeholders who seek to strengthen, dilute or amend the language of [...]



UNHRC, war crimes and Sri Lanka – an alternative perspective


A third US-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka goes down to the wire at a vote in the UN Human Rights Council in less than three weeks. With the draft of that resolution in circulation among the council’s member states, it is now lobbying-time for stakeholders who seek to strengthen, dilute or amend the language of the document — depending on their orientations and affiliations.

The Government of Sri Lanka has adopted an angry, defiant stance in response to Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay’s report to the 25th session of the UNHRC, categorically rejecting it along with resolution 22/1 of 2013. This posture, as reflected in External Affairs Minister G L Peiris’s response during the high level segment on March 5 — on a continuum with the Government’s stance in previous years — has not gone down well in the council, judging by the lack of applause and/or commendation following his speech. At the same time individual states, especially those that have themselves experienced conflicts, have shown some empathy and understanding with regard to Sri Lanka’s post-war difficulties.

Against this backdrop, a ‘track-two initiative’ has been recently launched by some concerned intellectuals in a bid to garner support for an alternative approach to Sri Lanka than the inquisitorial model currently employed. The thinking behind it, the Sunday Times learns, is to encourage friendly member states to intercede on Sri Lanka’s behalf. It is felt that such a diplomatic intervention could help bridge certain gaps in the council’s understanding of Sri Lanka’s case. This initiative, to which upper echelons of the Government are privy, stems from an analysis of the war crimes issue by the country’s oldest think tank, the Marga Institute, long respected for its independent research in the social sciences. The Sunday Times exclusively obtained details of the alternative perspective now being discreetly canvassed among diplomats, and outlined in a paper by Marga’s Chairman Emeritus Godfrey Gunatilleke.

Central to its argument is the position that the war crimes issue must be laid to rest to move forward with the process of reconciliation. If this is not done it will “plague the country, impair its international standing and impose various restraints and disabilities on the Sri Lankan people, particularly the members of the armed forces.”

Rather than flatly opposing the attempts to set up an international probe, the alternative approach demands (for the first time, it should be noted) an impartial evaluation of the ‘sharply contrasting and divergent’ reports on war crimes, by an inter-governmental group. It asserts that the UNHRC members need to be fully informed of the contesting narratives. Such a multilateral exercise would give Sri Lanka a chance to counter the false propaganda on war crimes, according to Dr. Gunatilleke, whose paper is co-authored by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, Asoka Gunawardane and Jeevan Thiagarajah. Sri Lanka’s objective would be to gain international acceptance for the narrative of the war as presented by the LLRC.

Action on three fronts
The alternative approach would require action on three fronts. Firstly, domestically, Sri Lanka would need to establish ‘an overarching mechanism’ that would monitor the implementation of the LLRC and complete its unfinished work, particularly concerning war crimes allegations in relation to civilian casualties. This work would be based on evidence drawn from the National Census on war casualties and violence, the Disappearances Commission and other available studies. The mechanism would need to be established or at least announced by the President before March 15, in order to have an impact on the UNHRC resolution.

Secondly, at the international level, Sri Lanka should call for an unbiased evaluation of the different and contrasting narratives of the war as presented by the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on the one hand, and the LLRC on the other. “Sri Lanka must take a bold and fearless stand on its own narrative of the war and invite a full transparent scrutiny of that narrative within a clearly defined framework that ensures a just and impartial evaluation.”

Thirdly, it calls for a major summit on International Humanitarian Law (IHL), terrorism, war crimes and human rights, in order to review the major transformation of the nature and methods of war that have occurred after the Second World War and the establishment of the UN. “The rules of war need to be re-examined and redefined to protect civilians in extreme situations such as the use of human shields by the LTTE” the document says.

The international community’s attention would need to be drawn to Chapter 4 of the LLRC report which argues that “the issues pertaining to the Sri Lankan war are an integral part of the issues faced by states in combating non-state actors employing terrorist forms of aggression and violating all norms of IHL.”

Biased account of the war
Gunatilleke draws attention to the variety of detailed and thorough studies by independent analysts that have convincingly exposed the ‘totally unreliable speculation’ underlying allegations in the UNSG panel’s report, such as casualty figures from 40,000 upward. There are well documented studies of satellite imagery to refute allegations of deliberate targeting of hospitals and civilians. “Little attention is paid to the fact that the Sri Lankan government fulfilled its moral obligations to its citizens by supplying food to the civilian population held by the enemy,” he says. “The shortcomings that are bound to arise in such an operation are reframed as war crimes.”

Pointing out that all these issues have come under expert scrutiny, he observes that “What is deplorable is that the international discourse on war crimes in Sri Lanka takes place in complete ignorance or indifference to this comprehensive body of knowledge. This is also true of the reports and initiatives promoted by the UNHRC. As a result, what has been circulating internationally is a highly biased account of the war. This account has become part of the strategy of the pro-LTTE Diaspora which is campaigning for a separate state and the dismemberment of Sri Lanka.”

Gunatilleke argues that governments of countries hosting large Tamil Diaspora communities, by failing to deal effectively with these campaigns which openly threaten the territorial integrity and sovereignty of a member state, violate their commitments for the peace and security of nations enshrined in the UN Charter.

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