By Dharisha Bastians
“A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March”
- Brutus, Julius Caesar Act 1 Scene 2
March is not a happy month for the Sri Lankan Government, nor has it been for the last three years.
The UN Human Rights Council was set up in 2006 by the UN General Assembly for the purpose of ‘addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on them.’ The Council is made up of 47 UN member states responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. The 19th Session of the UNHRC is due to be held in Geneva between 27 February and 23 March. The Sri Lankan Government has been in prep mode for this session since late last year, prompting the timely release of the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) on 16 December 2011.
Amid strong resistance from sections of the government, the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation was established by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in May 2010. The primary motivation behind the Commission’s establishment was to counter growing calls internationally for Sri Lanka to show some accountability for the conduct of its military in the final phase of the war with the LTTE between 2006 and 2009. The creation of this kind of ‘home-grown’ inquiry mechanism became critical after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, under severe pressure from several member states, set up a special Panel of Experts to look into allegations of violations of international humanitarian law during the last phase of Sri Lanka’s civil conflict. The UN Panel released its report in April 2011, and the LLRC’s own report followed eight months. The LLRC report contradicted the UN experts findings, in that it cleared the Sri Lankan armed forces of intentionally attacking civilian targets, but did nevertheless report on some findings that did not necessarily reflect well on the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and its coalition partners, the Douglas Devananda led EPDP and the TMVP, which was earlier headed by Karuna Amman, in particular.
Not much to show
When the UNHRC last met in September 2011, Sri Lanka did not have much to show. While the LLRC had released its interim report in September 2010, the government’s failure to implement a single recommendation by the Commission even after a year had passed, meant that pressure in Geneva in October was intense for the UN to set up an international commission of inquiry about Sri Lanka’s war. The lack of progress on this front is what has resulted in a desire among some member states led by Canada to push a resolution through about Sri Lanka, which the government delegation successfully avoided.
Similar concerns are being voiced by analysts and experts on the subject of handling a human rights situation that is consistently being raised in a multi-lateral forum, ahead of the March sessions of the UNHRC.
A great deal of hype was created with the release of the LLRC report in December, and despite assurances by senior government Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva to parliament that the government would implement the recommendations of the Commission soon, over a month has lapsed without so much as a hum from the government about what its plans are for implementation. So while the government envoys to Geneva are busy preparing to tell the Council that the LLRC is a credible report that adequately addresses the concerns of the international community regarding accountability and post-conflict reconciliation processes, there will be a gaping hole in the presentation unless there is some action in the coming month in terms of implementing the Commission’s recommendations.
One official with knowledge of the inner workings of the LLRC says that the government could start this process with the simplest option provided to them by the Commission – namely the public apology to all victims of the conflict. The official says that while there has been greater emphasis laid on military might during Independence Day ceremonies in the recent past, this year the focus could be set differently, with a more sombre tone to remember and honour all victims on both sides of the divide. “This could serve as a true gesture of reconciliation and it is not hard to implement,” the official added.
Using the LLRC
In fact, given the pressure that is mounting externally especially with regard to the March UNHRC session, there is some clamour among sections of the government that are pushing for follow through on the LLRC proposals. While the government’s most vociferous allies have been the hardliners who are completely opposed to the LLRC recommendations, saying they echo the call for an international inquiry put forward by the ‘Tamil nationalists’, there are quieter moderates within the ruling UPFA that do not wish to see Sri Lanka go down the road to sanctions and resolutions, especially when a way out has presented itself so well in terms of the LLRC report.
However, there are no signs that the government is moving in such a direction yet, with President Mahinda Rajapaksa instead electing that an intense canvassing campaign is the better option for Sri Lanka. He is to therefore send delegations to several UNHRC member states including Chile, Uruguay and several African countries in a bid to woo these countries over to Sri Lanka’s side, should things go awry in Geneva. During these visits, the high profile Sri Lankan delegations are expected to brief the UNHRC member nations on the implementation process of the LLRC report and the ongoing reconciliation process in Sri Lanka.
None of them being stellar human rights records holder themselves, these countries are likely to be easily swayed and since the UNHRC composition is essentially one country, one vote, a powerful bloc of nations allied against Sri Lanka, will not suffice unless the group can command the numbers. This is Sri Lanka’s strategy for March, and from a strategic perspective, it certainly is one that is likely to be effective.
Unfortunately, evasion and delaying tactics will not prove enough forever. There are moves afoot by Western states who are also to be present at the March sessions to get Sri Lanka to agree to talks on the LLRC on the sidelines of the UNHRC session. If Sri Lanka continues to reject this call for substantive talks on the LLRC process, it is likely that these nations will band together to attempt to bring another resolution against Sri Lanka. It is this attempt that Sri Lanka will likely defeat in March, but this is only likely to further anger and frustrate an international community that is becoming increasingly impatient with Sri Lanka for dragging its feet on the issues.
Rapp in Colombo?
It is in this light that the impending arrival of US President Barack Obama’s point man on war crimes Stephen Rapp in Colombo needs to be considered.
The visit of US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes comes after months of what has been increasing pressure from the US about Sri Lanka’s accountability and reconciliation. In November last year US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote confidentially to External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris regarding the government’s lack of action on these two fronts, and warned that ignoring the matters could result in a resurgence of violence that could derail the hard won peace. That the US is stepping up the pressure, probably with the blessings of Sri Lanka’s friends such as India, is now very clear if Rapp is to visit the island just weeks before the UNHRC sessions are due to commence.
Speaking to journalists in June 2010, Ambassador Rapp was critical of the LLRC process. "Obviously, what's been announced to date has not met the standard," Rapp said."They're telling us it does have that capacity, to investigate these cases, to follow up and call witnesses. We're hearing it, but we're not seeing it."
Stephen Rapp is the Obama Administration’s key focal point on war crimes issues around the world and is believed to have successfully led the prosecution against former Liberian President Charles Taylor on war crimes charges and for crimes against humanity.
It is difficult to say at this point how Sri Lanka will react to the official news that Rapp is to arrive here. It is certainly not something the government would encourage or welcome since the term ‘war crimes’ is not one that is even remotely entertained in the post-conflict discourse in the island. But if Rapp does indeed show up, that will be sufficient indication that things are about to get much hotter for Sri Lanka internationally, unless, and this is what analysts keep reiterating, unless the government takes meaningful steps to implement LLRC proposals, which is well within their power to do.
The world has not reacted well to the LLRC report, not because it is a poorly drafted document of findings, but because it was commissioned by a government that has not shown genuine will towards fixing the problems that are putting a blockade in the path of Sri Lanka’s path to post-war reconciliation and healing. One has to wonder therefore whether the government’s plans to showcase LLRC as its evidence that Sri Lanka is fully capable of meting out justice through a local mechanism will be derailed by the lack of progress on the implementation front and other issues such as ongoing disappearances that were recently highlighted again with the abduction and disappearance of two human rights activists in Jaffna, Lalith and Kugan.
Perhaps the time has come to take stock. It is true that the LLRC might have been the last hope for the government to showcase that its local justice systems still work and perhaps that was all the Commission was intended to be initially. In fact, had the findings become public sooner, perhaps it might have been. Unfortunately the report was placed in the public domain well after the world began losing patience with Sri Lanka, not only about its alleged transgressions in the final phase of the conflict, but also in the two years or more since the war officially ended. It is this tide of international agitation that Sri Lanka is finding it hard to stem, despite being in possession of the LLRC. Now convinced it will not be enough at the UNHRC in March, the government hopes that canvassing member states more likely to side with Sri Lanka against Britain, France and the US will at least prevent the worst, in the form of a resolution in Geneva.
Face-saving is a worthy skill, diplomatically speaking. But in some cases, sincerity and genuine will can prove a winning formula as well. 4 February is still a little over a week away and it is not too late to make minor alterations to the programme that would incorporate some of the LLRC proposals. That may go further to prove Sri Lanka’s case in Geneva than any intangible legal presentation about the success of the LLRC. In any case, it would be a good start and perhaps then, the Ides of March (or if we manage to avoid March, then September) would not need to spell doom for Sri Lanka after all.