Is Sri Lanka fatigue setting in?

Geneva HRC meeting ends on a flat note


By Kumar David

There was anticipation, and on the side of the government trepidation, that the Human Rights Council gathering in Geneva in mid-September would produce some fireworks. The outcome so far has been tame (writing on 20 September) though not without moments of theatre – for example HRC Commissioner Navi Pillay’s opening remarks that, "For three decades, not only has that country (Sri Lanka) suffered the brutal effects of terrorist acts, but the response of successive governments over the years has undermined independent institutions, human rights and the rule of law". However, the event that will have longer term significance is UNSG Ban Ki Moon forwarding the Darusman Report to the HR Commission, which means that every country on the Council is now formally in possession of the report. Of course the report is widely available on the Web and probably sits on the desk of the foreign service of every country, but Ban’s action has formalised the matter. This could facilitate the intentions of those interested in bringing it to the Security Council, the General Assembly, or a war crimes investigation, at a later date.

Still, these are relatively small eruptions compared to the feared mighty explosion that did not happen, at least not yet. A resolution condemning GoSL or a move to call for an international inquiry has not materialised. Perhaps those who may have wished to make these moves thought that there would be too much opposition or too many abstentions, or more likely, they, yet again, bought GoSL’s plea that it needs more time and is doing all it can. It is not surprising that Rajapaksa habitually trots out different adaptations of the same two tactics, interminable stalling or bait and switch; but what is surprising is that old hands at the game, such as the likes of Robert Blake and the mandarins in Delhi are daft enough to buy it again and again for the umpteenth time.

This brings me to the title of this article, maybe they are not fools. Maybe they see through the two-timing clearly enough, but they are suffering from Sri Lanka fatigue, in the case of Washington, or have been caught with their pants so low down that they cannot own-up as correspondents in the court of international human rights morality – I am referring to the Indian Government. The Chinese have consistently lived on a different planet so none of this has anything to do with them. Dealing with Beijing in the domain of human rights, whether at home or abroad, calls for a more plain-spoken approach, but not today.


Blake’s saga

Robert Blake’s visit was non-event par excellence. I do not know what was said in private but apart from the usual platitudes the only headline catching announcement he made was resumption of TNA-GoSL negotiations which was greeted with enthusiasm as flat as a pancake. Is there anyone who does not know that this isn’t going anywhere? It’s another in a succession of sucker punches isn’t it? APRC Expert Panel, APRC/APC, LLRC, TNA-talks; just who does all this fool? Out of choice, but more important out of necessity to keep his chauvinists on board, the Rajapaksas will not and do not want to come to a settlement that will even satisfy even the soft and compliant gentlemen of the TNA. The Rajapaksa-Tamil rights equation is a dead end.

My point is that Blake’s low key approach was probably to do with getting Colombo off the hook in Geneva for the time being. Why? Could be Rajapaksa cunning is too much for these naïve white guys to digest, or maybe they want to give Colombo time till March 2012 and the LLRC rope to hang itself with, or third Sri Lanka fatigue is taking its toll. If the last be the case then the beneficiary for the time being is GoSL which can resume the practice of thumbing its nose at the rest of the world. This is possible for now but will be entirely short lived because the Darusman Report, once released, will not go away. Marga Institute apologetics, the Defence Ministry’s defensive videos, and the froth and foam in the local press, so far as international opinion is concerned is just farting against thunder. For example this is how a run of the mill, not anti-Colombo, international website which I chose at random sees things.

"The United Nations recently released a report into war crimes committed in Sri Lanka in the final stages of that country’s brutal civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Colombo regime that ended in May 2009. The results were devastating and detailed tens of thousands of Tamil civilians targeted by a rampaging government army and human shields held by Tiger rebels. It was one of the worst massacres of the 21st century but remained largely a secret war, with journalists, human-rights workers and independent observers refused entry to the conflict zone".

This is what the big wide world out there believes, and it has never heard of, nor takes any notice of guys called Godfrey Goonetilleke and their local ilk. This may seem a bit of an unfair propaganda advantage but the point I am driving at is that what the world at large believes, rightly or wrongly, is what the Darusman Report says. By its sheer status as a report written for the UN Secretary General it has automatic pole position and the rest are non-starters.

Opinion columns in the local English language newspapers (the Sinhalese press is toxic so let’s not mention it) make fools of themselves, so serious readers local or aboard brush it all aside farcical. Let me quote an example to illustrate the point.

"(W)e can hope that Ms Obaid will see the Darusman report for what it is. A complete narration of imagination based on lies, deception with unsubstantiated comments, and extreme prejudice against SL" (Opinion page, The Island, 19 September)

Such farcical stuff - our papers print reams of it - is more to do with bile and colic than mind and logic; hence the international community takes little notice of local opinion. (En passant; Ms Obaid is the person appointed by Ban Ki Moon to probe Darusman Report criticism of UN lapses in Sri Lanka during the war).

Can the LLRC fix it?

Imagine that the government does not interfere with the final LLRC report (that is does not do an APRC to it) and if the report itself, in contrast to all previous presidential commissions, is at least half-truthful; will Colombo be able to wash off the accumulated mud? No, it’s too late now; they have cried "Wolf, wolf" much too often. The poor commissioners therefore are aloft a cleft stick. People including the international community will start off with the automatic default option that it’s entirely a cover-up job at the back of its mind. Unfair? Yes of course it’s unfair at least till one gets to see the report.

The truth, then, is that the international community and international human rights organisations have, mentally, whatever formal platitudes they announce in the interim, already dumped the LLRC as a put up job. I agree that it is unfair to damn the LLRC’s child as a bastard even before it gives birth to the offspring, but blame lies with the paternity of these presidential commissions. The point is well understood and I do not need to labour it any farther. (Sorry about all this atrocious punning).


The awakening

British Foreign Secretary Edward Hague told a House of Commons committee that "Sri Lanka has been told it needs to show progress by the end of this year or Britain will support the international community in revisiting all options available to press the Sri Lankan government to fulfil its obligations". The American position is said to be something similar but the deadline that has been mentioned in the media is March 2012. It also seems that the Americans are more concerned about getting a political settlement than the accountability issue. Apparently Blake wants Rajapaksa to implement the whole of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in exchange for which he will strive to get Colombo off the war crimes hook. New Delhi, for its own survival – it stands accused fair and square as accessory-after-the-fact in the war crimes issue – would also like to see attention deflected to the political settlement side. All three also believe that reconciliation between communities has a greater chance of success if investigations are locally led rather than externally imposed.

With all due respect, all three of these esteemed foreign powers are simply baying at the moon. The simple point is that it is quite impossible for GoSL to establish a credible, independent investigation of breaches of international humanitarian law and alleged war crimes since the finger is being pointed by many, not only the Tamil diaspora, all the way to the top. It is also near impossible for GoSL to devolve power to Tamil areas and still be able to hold its support among its chauvinist partners. The Defence Secretary’s remarks that devolution was unnecessary and the present constitution is just fine reflect the real balance of power in the government and the Rajapaksa regime’s power base.

Come November, come March next year, or whenever, I cannot see how the gap between the things that Delhi, London and Washington are asking for and the distance GoSL is willing travel, can be bridged. The gap cannot be bridged. Then there seem only two options; either for the government to give in, face very hostile internal music and offer up some military brass (Fonseka et al?) as sacrificial lambs to The Hague (again, bad pun); or the other option for India and the West to go on pretending to be asleep. Unrepentant cynic that I am, I am not offering bets, either way.

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