Sri Lanka may have won the war against terrorism but its battle for credibility and dignity in the eyes of the international community is far from over, as events this week were to prove.
The United Nation High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Al Hussein, presenting a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) noted that Sri Lanka had much more to do if it were to honour its commitments to the Council.
True, Hussein was appreciative of some of the steps that Colombo had taken thus far. He noted that ‘The restoration of the Constitutional Council, an independent Human Rights Commission and the ratification of the Disappearances Convention are important achievements that will leave a legacy for the future’ but also declared that ‘more rapid and sustained progress could have been made on other issues, such as the release of land and detainees and the revision of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and witness protection laws, which would build confidence with the minority community’.
The most concerning comment by Hussein was about the much disputed probe into alleged war crimes during the last stages of the Eelam war. He stated that such an inquiry should be ‘under an effective transitional justice mechanism that should include international judges’.
This is likely to be the big bone of contention. President Maithripala Sirisena is on record saying that any probe into the alleged atrocities will be conducted by the local judiciary and that there was no need to include international judges. Any foreign participation would be only as observers, the government has hinted time and again.
Now, Hussein has suggested that the UNHRC would not be happy with such an arrangement and is calling for its pound of flesh. However, Colombo will find it hard to accommodate such a request even though it is keen to appease the international community.
That is because any international inquiry into alleged war crimes would provoke a strong public reaction in the south of the country that would be politically devastating for the ruling alliance between the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the political forces opposed to the government led by the so-called ‘Joint Opposition’ which rallies around former President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be quite happy to exploit the situation and harp on its familiar theme of ‘saving the nation’.
Faced with this conundrum, Colombo must take the middle road – one that would placate the international community while at the same time keeping the nationalist and chauvinistic elements in the South at bay. It is no easy task.
One way to do so is to try and win over the moderate Tamil political forces, chiefly the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The government has succeeded in doing this to some extent but the TNA itself is an alliance of different political forces and some of its more radical elements are difficult to please.
Commissioner Hussein suggests that ‘The early momentum established in investigating emblematic cases must be sustained’ and it must be conceded that while there was a lot of hue and cry about UNHRC issues at the beginning of the tenure of this government, this has been swept off the front pages lately as the government grapples with more pressing issues such as natural disasters, corruption probes and the appointment of governors to the Central Bank.
Colombo would do well to remind itself that it co-sponsored a resolution at the UNHRC jointly with the United States in a bid to ward off international sanctions and isolation. It was a smart move by the new government. However, it also implied that it would follow through with the relevant steps.
If it does not do so now, its commitment to human rights will be found wanting and the Eelam lobby will be quick to pounce. Sri Lanka has endured that once. It should not leave room for its detractors to shout from the rooftops once again.
Sri Lanka may not be able to concede all of Hussein’s demands. But it must also not pave the way for yet another bashing by the international community. Colombo needs a diplomatic offensive and the time for this is now.