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Why Is Sri Lanka Defying the United Nations?

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The Pulse

Why Is Sri Lanka Defying the United Nations?

Sri Lanka’s strategy of defiance, denial, and delay might be designed to evade the charge of genocide.

Why Is Sri Lanka Defying the United Nations?
Credit: UN photo

Lately, Colombo has intensified its defiance of UN resolutions calling for investigations into war crimes committed during the latter stages of the civil war. In late November, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena declared that “There won’t be electric chairs, international tribunals or foreign judges. That book is closed.”

Earlier, in October, Colombo sought and obtained the help of British parliamentarian Lord Naseby to downplay a report by the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts, which in March 2011 found “credible allegations” that as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final months of the civil war, mostly as a result of indiscriminate shelling by the Sri Lankan military. Naseby had called on the UN to reduce the number from 40,000 to between 7,000 and 8,000 based on his own research.

Naseby’s links to Sri Lanka go back to 1975, when he founded the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sri Lanka. Naseby has been an advocate for Sri Lanka in the British parliament and in 2005, was awarded Sri Lanka Ratna, the highest national honor bestowed upon foreigners for exceptional and outstanding service to the nation by the then Sri Lankan government. In November 2017, Sirisena thanked Naseby for calling for a reduction in numbers of the people killed. Although much has been made by the Sri Lankan press about Naseby’s call for a revision of the casualties, this has been summarily dismissed by the British government via its High Commissioner in Colombo.

Britain’s position is based on the Report of the UN Panel of Experts, comprising prominent human right activists, Marzuki Darusman (from Indonesia), Yasmin Sooka (South Africa), and Steven Ratner (United States). Unlike Naseby’s “findings,” the UN report has been corroborated by several other independent sources. These include: the Channel Four documentary Killing Fields, Francis Harrison’s book Still Counting the Dead, and reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Since 2012, resolutions calling for international investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka have been passed in the UN. Until 2015, these were opposed by Colombo on the grounds that international investigations were intrusive and, if implemented, would undermine Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The Sri Lankan government during this period was the one that had successfully crushed the Tamil rebellion and the resolutions passed were directed in particular at this government, headed by president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

In January 2015, Maithripala Sirisena, with the support of the United States and India, defeated Rajapaksa in the presidential election. The new regime was expected to be more receptive to UN resolutions on post-war justice. In September 2015, a new resolution calling for an investigation into war crimes avoided any reference to an international investigation and in its place called for establishing a mechanism involving foreign judges in a local investigation. The Sirisena government went along by co-sponsoring this resolution. However, in March 2017, Colombo sought and obtained another two years to implement the 2015 resolution. But its current actions show that it has no intention of implementing the resolution. Instead, it seeks defy the very resolution it had co-sponsored in 2015.

There are good reasons to suspect that the Sri Lankan government’s opposition to any impartial investigation is due to its apprehension that it may result in Colombo having to face the much grimmer charge of genocide.

In February 2015, Sri Lanka’s Tamil-dominated Northern Provincial Council passed a resolution reflecting Tamil sentiments that the crimes perpetrated went beyond war crimes and were in fact genocide. Following this resolution, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) came under criticism for its “silence” on genocide. The Hindu, an Indian newspaper, was prompted to raise this with the OHCR, which responded by stating that the UN report does not preclude the potential for a future finding that genocide was committed as a result of further criminal investigations.

OHCR’s response was not entirely surprising. In December 2008, just six months before the Tamil rebellion was brutally crushed, the New York-based Genocide Prevention Project had identified Sri Lanka as one of the eight “red alert” countries where genocide and other mass atrocities were underway. And just two months later, in February 2009, the Boston Globe compared the ongoing massacre in Sri Lanka to the Bosnian Srebrenica genocide. Then there were the accusations leveled by Professor Francis A. Boyle, a leading American expert in international law, who interpreted the Sri Lankan government’s actions as genocide under international law.

In December 2013, a full session of the Rome-based Permanent Peoples Tribunal held in Bremen to consider evidence gained over three years found,”that the State of Sri Lanka is guilty of the crime of genocide against Eelam Tamils.”

Given the suspicions that Sri Lanka may well be guilty of genocide, this may be the reason for its concerted attempts to evade any kind of investigations into its conduct during the final phase of the war.

Ana Pararajasingham was Director-Programmes with the Centre for Just Peace and Democracy (CJPD). He is the author “Sri Lanka’s Endangered Peace Process and the Way Forward” (2007) and editor of “Sri Lanka: 60 Years of ‘Independence and Beyond’” (2009).