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Commonwealth summit succeeds - with a caveat

Can Sri Lanka come to terms with its bloody past?

  • Jehan Perera, Colombo
  • Sri Lanka
  • November 21, 2013
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The Sri Lankan government spared no effort or expense to make the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting a success, the hallmarks of a gracious host. Those who attended the various events would have been impressed by the attention showered on them. There was the best of hotel accommodation and food, in addition to brand new cars and buses to transport them around. There was always a plethora of personnel around to attend to their needs. There also was the human interest dimension of the meeting for the larger Sri Lankan population.

Media images within Sri Lanka of the meeting were positive, with few exceptions. The sight of Prince Charles and his wife Camilla visiting orphanages, hospitals, women’s centers and tea plantations was heartwarming on account of their visible kindness and graciousness. British Prime Minister David Cameron playing cricket with Sri Lankan cricket legend Muttiah Muralitharan and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot jogging on Galle Face along with the president’s son was a show of engagement with the interests of the general population. 

The hosting of the meeting by Sri Lanka was a triumph for its government in the context of the bitter opposition it faced. Sri Lanka’s hosting was contested on the grounds of its failure to abide by the stated values of the Commonwealth. Issues of independence of the judiciary and public institutions, separations of powers and also of corruption and abuse of power are common to many countries of the Commonwealth and, indeed, the world. But what the detractors of Sri Lanka’s role as host country focused on was its government’s conduct of the last phase of its 30-year war that ended in May 2009.

After the meeting, the lines of battle are clear. At one extreme is Cameron, who declared during his visit that Sri Lanka must investigate the issue of human rights violations in the last phase of the war before the next session of the UN Human Rights Council in March. He said that if an investigation was not completed by then, he would use Britain’s "position on the UN Human Rights Council to work with the UN Human Rights Commission and call for a full, credible and independent international inquiry.” Having made his announcement and set a deadline, he will now be under further pressure to ensure that he carries out his promise to push for an international probe if the Sri Lankan government does not do so on its own.

Cameron was under immense pressure not to come to Sri Lanka by sections of the international community, including human rights groups and the Tamil diaspora. However, he also left a way out for Sri Lanka. This was by his assertion that an international investigation would only follow if the Sri Lankan government did not conduct its own independent investigation by March.

It seems likely that the Sri Lankan government would accept the offer from South Africa to assist in the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. South African President Jacob Zuma has reportedly offered his country’s experience in tackling the difficult issues of post-conflict accountability to assist Sri Lanka. 

The South African model of a truth and reconciliation commission with the power to grant amnesty would be an option that the Sri Lankan government might wish to consider and propose to the international community as an alternative to the investigation sought by the British prime minister. The lopsided weakness in the British position is in its insistence on an investigation only into the last phase of the 30-year war. 

The narrow focus on the last phase of the war is seen by many in Sri Lanka, and not only its government, as a partisan intervention to punish it for defeating the Tamil separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. This is a perception that has the potential to generate vast sympathy for the government from across the political spectrum within Sri Lanka. 

Indeed, the main opposition party, the United National Party, which boycotted the summit on the grounds of the government’s anti-democratic conduct leading up to the summit, has nevertheless publicly declared its own opposition to an international investigation. It said that human rights violations, or any connected issues, should be resolved within the country. It also blamed the government for having created the background for an international investigation by turning the meeting “into an international human rights conference.”

The Sri Lankan war was characterized as a no-mercy war well before its last phase. Prisoners were seldom taken. There was at least one occasion in which the fall of an army base led to the death of nearly 1,000 soldiers, many of whom had single bullet shots to the head. In another incident 600 policemen who surrendered to the Tamil rebels were executed. Many of those who supported the rebels during those terrible years are now in the diaspora. Any serious investigation into human rights violations and war crimes would need to include that earlier period if it is to be seen as even-handed. Those who were merchants of death, and raised funds for the rebels, and propagated their cause, need also to be held accountable. 

In the meantime, in Sri Lanka, the government basks in the triumph of the summit. Internationally too, the government may have won more friends. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak who was one of the 28 heads of government who attended the summit said, “we should not be divided” and expressed a “sense of wanting to stay together.” Sri Lanka is set to resist the focus on just one part of its traumatic past.

Jehan Perera is Executive Director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.  He is also a regular columnist to national newspapers.  He has a Doctor of Law degree from Harvard University.

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