Though they were partially hysterical, there was an air of predictability about the comments made by the UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Raad Al Hussein when he spoke on Wednesday about the OHCHR report on Sri Lanka and on what in his opinion, is to follow. Hysterical, because he did not rule out the ‘plausibility of genocide’, saying that there had been systemic violence perpetrated against innocents and combatants, mainly by the armed forces. Would the Sri Lankan government agree to the proposal for the so-called hybrid court to try armed forces personnel charged for supposed war crimes?
The new government is content to do what the US government stipulates with regard to Sri Lanka on the human rights front, which is what for a long time has translated as the UNHRC agenda for this country
The hybrid court is also part of the experiment with regard to human rights oversight functions the UN human rights commission is chancing its arm with. As far as the OHCHR investigation was concerned, it has been conceded that this was not a criminal investigation. However, this ‘human rights investigation’, whatever that means, has determined that there have been serious rights violations in Sri Lanka and determined that crimes of a sexual nature were pronounced in the context of the hostilities, particularly after they ended.
The big question is whether the current government gets a reprieve, because it consists of the favorites of the international Establishment, and also because the new government is content to do what the US government stipulates with regard to Sri Lanka on the human rights front, which is what for a long time has translated as the UNHRC agenda for this country. The new Sri Lankan leadership seems to think that it has the influence at its command to stave off substantial prosecutions against members of the armed forces and the civilian high command for alleged war crimes. But is this a position any reflection of the reality?
It seems odd for instance that the OHCHR report also includes accusations against the current dispensation insofar as it is observed that there has been continued suppression of free media outside Colombo, along with references to regular incidents of rights violations against LTTE suspects even after the January elections, right up to the time the OHCHR hearing concluded.
On the other hand the positive if not rather glowing comments made about the new Lankan dispensation were almost of an ingratiating nature. For example, with regard to judicial independence, it is observed in the OHCHR report that a new Chief Justice was appointed, with words to the effect that this was after the formerly impeached Chief Justice was returned to office for one day. Nothing is said about the farcical nature of inducting a Chief Justice for one day, or Sri Lankans having to endure the spectacle of having three Chief Justices within the space of two days, or about the manner in which the sitting Chief Justice in January, was summary removed by executive order, in clear violation of even the most rudimentary principles of the independence of the judiciary.
Nothing either, is said about the farcical nature of democracy as it prevails in this country, with franchise being made a nonsense of with members Parliament being appointed from a list of those who had lost and been sent home by the voters, or the Opposition being steamrollered by Executive fiat. Instead the Zeid Al Hussein UN High Commissioner for human rights, for instance, had to observe that the new Sri Lankan government has worked with OHCHR in a cooperative spirit, and that the general climate of accusations and acrimony that prevailed during the tenure of the former government was absent.
That part about acrimony may certainly have been correct, but the obvious partiality towards the new dispensation is clear, and what is disturbing is that its own human rights violations are glossed over, except in cases where alleged violations of the rights of Tamil civilians are concerned.
The general contours of the new UNHRC policy on Sri Lanka are therefore clear. All of this seems to be with a view to ensuring that there are persecutions of forces personnel ‘because there has been impunity’, as the High Commissioner repeatedly stated at Wednesday’s press conference in Geneva. There seems to be tacit recognition of the fact that their new found friends, the Sri Lankan government, are in a bind, because the latter find themselves between a rock and a hard place. The new leadership in Colombo has to be conciliatory towards the United States and that agenda that emerges from Washington for obvious reasons, but also cannot allow indiscriminate prosecutions of Sri Lankan forces personnel, as that would lead to a certain a backlash which would be politically devastating at home.
Perhaps the new foreign-policy establishment would attempt to straddle the middle ground between the two extremes, but, there are no certainties that would ensue from this course of action.
When the UN High Commissioner for human rights says that though it’s too early to tell, the possibility of genocide is not ruled out after everything is taken into account, and adds repeatedly that impunity granted to Sri Lankan forces personnel has to end, it is obvious that there is no intent whatsoever of granting any kind of reprieve to the armed forces or the high command, despite the fact that there has been a change of government which was to the liking of the UN establishment and its backers.
In the face of this, the Sri Lankan government delegation had no option it seems, except to be conciliatory to the point of being cowed. This attitude is already coming in for pugnacious criticism from the likes of Dayan Jayatilleka for instance, and if the idea of a hybrid court is acceded to, it is clear that by and large in Sri Lanka, the majority of the population would consider this as a capitulation to foreign intervention.
So far the new Sri Lankan foreign-policy establishment has looked amateurish, but somebody might retort that it is early days still, and too premature to judge. But it is obvious that words would have to give way to substance. For the moment the new Sri Lankan foreign-policy czars have been content with reconciliatory and sometimes uplifting rhetoric, which some of the local media has been exultant over, labeling it as being ‘sincere and soothing’, whatever that means …
However, very soon, it would be decision-making time. And on that score, there would be no room for equivocation. Would there be a hybrid Court or not? Nobody could predict, for the simple reason that the style of the new President in particular has been to deliberately send out confusing messages, until final decisions are made. This tack was seen to have been finessed to be a code of conduct, particularly during election time. Whatever decisions are taken eventually, the certainty is that there would be a day of reckoning. The Sri Lankan foreign-policy’s joint authorship will not be able to hide behind platitudes anymore. The way things have been going, it appears that so far those of the likes of Dayan have been right. There has been a general climate of capitulation in Geneva, and this would not bode well for the government’s stature at home.