Human rights in Sri Lanka

A sense of outrage pervades Sri Lanka after the passing of a resolution in the U.N. Human Rights Council critical of that country. The chief mover of the resolution was the United States, which has become the main target of public indignation. Street demonstrations have taken place and calls made for the boycott of U.S. goods.

A particularly outspoken Cabinet Minister has harshly denounced the role of three Sri Lanka human rights activists who were in Geneva when the resolution went through, and they have become targets of the local media in Sri Lanka. Threatening and fierce language against them has even caused the Sri Lanka Free Media Movement, which has supported the activists, to express concern for their personal welfare.

On the other side of the divide, the U.S. secretary of state has asked for early implementation of the council’s recommendations. Other senior U.S. spokespersons have echoed the Secretary of State and have asked Sri Lanka to draw up a plan to meet the requirements of the council resolution. The demand for follow-up action is strong and the need to account for human rights violations in Sri Lanka is firmly presented. Without accountability for past events, it is argued, lasting peace will not be attainable.

This message from U.S. authorities is not one that Sri Lanka’s government is in any mood to heed. That country feels, with reason, that it has been the victim of a dangerous insurgency that claimed very large numbers of victims and did incalculable harm to Sri Lanka’s people. Many of the topmost leaders were assassinated in an unending series of targeted killings.

It was the LTTE insurgency that made the world familiar with such terror techniques as suicide attacks and the use of boy soldiers. Sri Lanka’s Tamil diaspora was carefully milked for resources to acquire weapons; progressively the strikes against the central authority became ever more audacious, and the virtual separation of the Tamil areas from the rest of the country was imposed by force of arms. The LTTE was able to run a state within the state where it held absolute sway.

Having such a relentless enemy in to contend with, Colombo received abundant international support as it tried to maintain its control. In searching for a solution, numerous attempts were made to mediate between the parties and bring about reconciliation. These efforts proved unavailing, largely because the insurgents were adamant in rejecting anything short of their ultimate goal.

In the last phase, the mediatory efforts seemed to be in abeyance and Colombo felt constrained to go all out for a military solution. The world did not stand in the way as a fierce military confrontation ran its course, leading eventually to success for Colombo. The LTTE was defeated on the ground and the insurgency brought to an end. President Rajapaksa, the architect of the success, received much praise from an international community that had identified terrorism as a principal enemy of peace and good order. Thus the crushing of the LTTE was seen as a positive gain.

But the loss of life in the final encounters soon began to draw criticism from international media sources and from human rights activists. The civilian toll had been high and there were many accounts of summary disposal of LTTE cadres by the armed forces as they broke into their strongholds. Criticism mounted and, in the eyes of foreign observers, the sense of triumph brought about by a successful campaign began to wear off. Nor was there much evidence when the fighting was done of a determined effort by Colombo to reach out and seek reconciliation between the majority Sinhalas and the minority Tamils.

True, a Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission was set up but this does not seem to have had much impact as yet, not enough at any rate to deflect criticism in the U.N. Human Rights Council. The perceived lack of meaningful action has contributed to the dissatisfaction and has helped push through the council the resolution critical of Sri Lanka. As is evident, the cause of human rights has powerful and vocal supporters across the globe and they are vigilant in trying to identify and curb what they regard as instances of violation of human rights.

From the start, India has been closely affected by the ethnic troubles of its neighbor Sri Lanka. There have been many ups and downs that need not be recounted here. Suffice it to recall that over the last few decades, relations between the two have often been troubled and uncertain. The unsettled conditions within this close neighbor eventually drew India to intervene in a bid to reconcile the different groups, and an Indian Peace Keeping Force was dispatched for the purpose. It achieved little, the differences intensified, and ultimately India had to face the tragedy of the assassination of former Premier Rajiv Gandhi. Subsequently, India kept at a wary distance and left it to others to mediate across Sri Lanka’s ethnic divide.

It is only recently that relations had picked up significantly and India and Sri Lanka were able to strengthen ties to the level both desire. The crushing of the LTTE insurgency removed an obstacle, and the economic partnership has lately thrived greatly.

The Geneva meeting could, however, represent a stumbling block. India felt it necessary to vote against Sri Lanka in the Human Rights Council, and though the reaction in Colombo has been restrained, especially when compared to the outpouring against the United States, there has been some resentment at India’s failure to stand by this neighbor and friend. India claims to have succeeded in watering down the resolution to make it less onerous but that may not cut much ice. India does not customarily take a stand on human rights resolutions targeting individual countries, so its vote in the Human Rights Council is a departure from normal practice.

By Salman Haidar

Salman Haidar is India’s former foreign secretary.

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