By: Rosie DiManno
While President Mahinda Rajapaksa will paint “Paradise Island” in democratic colours for the General Assembly, the UN human rights commissioner will deliver a damning appraisal
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA—Twenty-four hours after Sri Lanka goes on the defensive at the United Nations in New York, the UN will go on the offensive against Sri Lanka in Geneva.
In a coincidence of timing, President Mahinda Rajapaksa will address the General Assembly on Tuesday — one day before UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay is scheduled to deliver what’s expected to be a damning appraisal of the nation that calls itself “Paradise Island.”
This past March, by a vote of 25-13 (with eight abstentions), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reaffirmed U.S.-led Resolution 19/2 from a year earlier, intensifying criticism of Sri Lanka’s failure to pursue accountability and promote meaningful reconciliation between minority Tamils — losers in a 27-year civil war — and the majority Sinhalese.
The resolution also called upon the government to “credibly investigate” allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law during the final phase of combat.
The conflict, which ended in 2009, left at least 100,000 people dead. But there are no confirmed figures for the tens of thousands of civilians killed in the final months of fighting, when Tamil Tigers were pushed by the Sri Lankan Army into a sliver of land along the eastern coast. Caught in the crossfire, civilians faced heavy bombardment from one side and threats of execution from the other if they attempted to escape across no man’s land.
The resolution’s strongest passage expressed concern over reports of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, threats to the rule of law, religious discrimination, intimidation of activists, reprisals against human rights defenders and threats to journalists.
Sri Lanka rejected the resolution, accusing the UNHRC of focusing its critical gaze, under pressure from Washington, on countries that are weak in stature while ignoring human rights violations elsewhere.
On the one hand, Rajapaksa takes bows for the “Sri Lankan Model” to defeat global terrorism, with the country experiencing not a single incident of violence since the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were wiped out in 2009. (The LTTE set the standard of ruthlessness for subsequent terrorist groups, from Al Qaeda to Al Shabab.)
On the other, Rajapaksa claims the situation in Sri Lanka is still tenuous, with rule of law vulnerable to a lingering Tiger ideology in Tamil areas and the dream of secession kept alive by the same Tamil diaspora that funded the LTTE.
It’s estimated that nearly one million Tamils have sought refuge in other countries, including 143,000 who, according to the latest census data, have made their home in Canada.
At his UN address, Rajapaksa will no doubt point to this past weekend’s provincial council elections in the Northern Province — Tigerland during the brutal war — as evidence of the democratic process unfolding within the “time and space” required, as government officials describe it.
In groundbreaking limited-autonomy provincial elections, the first that the 95-per-cent Tamil province has been permitted since the civil war ended, the Tamil National Alliance enjoyed a sweeping victory, taking 30 of 38 seats, despite obstacles thrown up by the Colombo regime.
It was a humiliating rebuke for the Rajapaksa dynasty: the president; his defence secretary brother Gotabaya, considered the most powerful man in the country and architect of the military campaign that vanquished the Tigers; another brother who heads the Ministry of Economic Development; and various relatives in other senior state positions as well as heading up some of Sri Lanka’s richest companies, such as Sri Lanka Airlines. The Rajapaksas control about 70 per cent of the country’s national budget.
Over five days in New York, the Sri Lankan mission will conduct bilateral discussions with several heads of state from Africa, the Middle East and Asia to — in the words of External Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris — “explain matters convincingly” with respect to “unparalleled” postwar achievements and holding Tiger Lite aspirations at bay.
The president will meet as well with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who hailed the provincial council elections as “an important opportunity to foster political reconciliation between Sri Lankans after many years of conflict.”
Also on the agenda is a tête-à-tête with Kamalesh Sharma, secretary general of the Commonwealth, as Colombo gears up to host the 54-member Commonwealth heads of government meeting in November.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already said he will not personally attend the summit, in protest over Sri Lanka’s human rights record, though Canada will send a delegation.
They’ll probably have further ammunition once UNHRC head Pillay delivers her oral presentation in Geneva on Wednesday. Though Pillay’s full report won’t be released until March, Pillay — an ethnic Tamil from South Africa — gave a preview in sharply critical remarks at the conclusion of her first official fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka last month.
The president, surprising many, allowed Pillay unfettered access everywhere and with anyone. At a concluding news conference, Pillay provoked public outrage by revealing “disturbing reports” that individuals she had met with had been harassed and intimidated afterwards, by both army personnel and police.
Pillay slammed the Rajapaksa regime for a culture of “persistent impunity,” a sustained assault on freedom of expression and failure to implement core recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.
Of course, the UN itself doesn’t have clean hands on Sri Lanka.
Late last year, it released a report admitting the UN had failed its mandate by not protecting civilians who came under heavy shelling by the army in the late stages of the war and withdrawing its staff from the area as the populace pleaded for them to stay. There were no international witnesses to what unfolded because journalists were not allowed to cover the war.
It remains unknown how many of the 330,000 civilians trapped in what became known as “The Cage” — where the Tigers made their last stand — were killed. The UN now estimates up to 40,000 people may have died, though other rights groups such as Amnesty International suggest the numbers may have been as high as 70,000. The government, which released its own investigation results in 2011, estimated 9,000 perished in the final five months of combat and blamed the Tigers.
In its too-late mea culpa, the UN report acknowledged: “The UN’s failure to adequately respond to events like those that occurred in Sri Lanka should not happen again. When confronted by similar situations, the UN must be able to meet a much higher standard in fulfilling its protection and humanitarian responsibilities.” courtesy: Toronto Star