If the newly elected government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe expected the on-going sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to be a resounding diplomatic victory for Sri Lanka, they must be disappointed.
Zeid’s statement at the UNHRC was as scathing as it was biased. He accepted that LTTE committed atrocities during the war but most of the alleged human rights violations singled out for mention were purportedly by Sri Lankan troops
Initially, it appeared as if the stage was set for a reasonable compromise, with the new regime in Colombo re-establishing good relations with the United States which sponsored the resolutions against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC during previous years. The US had agreed to a domestic inquiry.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government worked hard in the few months that they were in office to smoothen the feathers ruffled in Washington during the tenure of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, culminating in the visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry to Colombo earlier this year.
However, this week’s remarks of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid al Hussein, the successor Navaneethan Pillay, proved that the outcome in Geneva was not a foregone conclusion and that the pro-Eelam lobby may secure an international inquiry of sorts.
Zeid’s statement at the UNHRC was as scathing as it was biased. He accepted that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) committed atrocities during the war but it was apparent that most of the alleged human rights violations singled out for mention were purportedly by Sri Lankan troops.
The horrific attacks on civilians the LTTE systematically carried out over thirty years are not dwelt on in the report. Instead, most of the ‘unlawful killings’ and ‘violations related to deprivation of liberty’ listed cites the government of Sri Lanka and its security forces as the alleged perpetrators.
Zeid then castigated Sri Lanka’s judicial system. “The inescapable reality is that Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system is not ready to handle these types of crimes”, Zeid told the media in Geneva alleging that “many of the structures responsible for the violations and crimes remain in place”.
Then, claiming that “the degree to which the country’s security sector and judicial system had been corrupted by decades of emergency, conflict and impunity posed challenges to achieving justice for victims”, Zeid called for what he termed a ‘hybrid’ inquiry with international participation.
The contours of this so-called ‘hybrid’ mechanism have not been defined yet but Zeid said he hoped it would be with the “integration of international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators”. If that is indeed so, it would simply be an international probe with another name!
There is still some hope for Colombo as the proposal for this ‘hybrid’ inquiry has not yet been included in the final resolution that to emerge out of Geneva at the conclusion of the UNHRC sessions but there is no doubt Zeid – and the pro-Eelam lobby – will be advocating earnestly for it.
Having returned to Colombo, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera was tight-lipped about Sri Lanka’s stance on Zeid’s call for a ‘hybrid’ inquiry. Instead, he acknowledged there would be an ‘international’ role in the probe and said this would be in specialised areas such as forensic analysis.
Samaraweera did commit to an eighteen- month period to conclude the inquiry and claimed that the level of international participation will be determined by Sri Lanka through consultation. He appeared to portray the outcome as a victory for Colombo because no alleged perpetrators have been named.
There is little doubt that between now and the conclusion of the UNHRC sessions, there will be hectic lobbying. Sri Lanka will want to wrest control of any inquiry that is to be held and the pro-Eelam lobby which remains very active will be pushing for all of Zeid’s requests to be entertained.
Colombo’s difficulties arise from the fact that the new government – unlike its predecessor has been adopting an accommodating role towards the US, its western allies and the UNHRC. It is now faced with an unexpected and forceful demand for a ‘hybrid’ probe with active international participation.
There is little doubt that if the government does allow the ‘hybrid’ inquiry that has been demanded by Zeid and a probe does include international ‘judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators’ as envisaged, the inquiry could be hijacked by the pro-Eelam western lobby intent on hurting Sri Lanka.
How the government navigates the diplomatic minefield is left to be seen. Premier Wickremesinghe is on record saying that domestic mechanisms are sufficient to provide a credible inquiry. Often vilified as a ‘stooge’ of the West, his image will take a further beating if he agrees to a ‘hybrid’ probe.
Much will depend on Sri Lanka’s resolve to deal with the UNHRC in a realistic but politically sensitive way. The government cannot be unaware that Rajapaksa and his loyalists will be waiting in the wings to say ‘we told you so’, if its policy of appeasing the US and its allies goes horribly wrong.