The three member panel of experts that has been appointed by the Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon on June 23 to advise himself on “accountability issues relating to alleged violations of International Human Rights and Humanitarian law, during the final stages of the war against the LTTE” has created somewhat a crisis situation in Sri Lanka, with Housing Minister and National Freedom Front leader Wimal Weerawansa starting a protest and a fast in front of the UN compound in Colombo last week.
With the protest by the NFF on Tuesday taking a violent turn the UN has decided to temporarily close its Colombo office and to take UNDP regional office away from Sri Lanka. The reactions by the leaders of the Government to the UN Secretary General’s move to appoint a Panel on the issue and the counter reaction by the UN officials raise more questions than answers. The issue has been confusing since the last stage of the war was not the only period when human rights are said to have been breached by the two belligerent parties during the three-decade-old-conflict. Villages were destroyed in their entirety and people had been killed in hundreds just for belonging to a particular race, allegedly by both parties and the IPKF since 1984. An entire populace of Muslims was chased away from the Northern Province by the LTTE in 1990.
In that sense, the eight member “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa on May 15 to “report on the lessons to be learnt from the events between February 2002 and May 2009 and to recommend preventive measures” was much more logical than the UN Panel. The Sri Lankan commission goes back at least up to February 2002.
It was considered by many that the local commission was a preemptive attempt by the Sri Lankan Government to a move by the UN Secretary General (UNSG) to appoint the Panel. However, the very appointment of the Local Commission was also an indirect admission of the existence of Human rights violations, whoever the culprits may have been.
The UN officials have been repeatedly saying that the Secretary General’s Panel is not a body of investigation. The statement issued by Ban’s spokesperson, Martin Nesirky on the day the Panel was appointed said that the “Panel will advise Ban on implementing the commitment on human rights accountability made in the joint statement issued by the Secretary General and President Mahinda Rajapaksa, after the UN chief’s visit to the island in May 2009.” However, the Sri Lankan authorities were not amenable to the very idea of appointing a UN panel, leave alone recognizing the panel.
The UN officials, by saying that the panel is not an investigating body, are implying that an investigation by the UN would not be salubrious to the leaders of the island nation. On the other hand, one may question as to why the Sri Lankan leaders were so jittery to the very idea of an investigation, as they question General Sarath Fonseka with respect to the court cases against the former Army Commander and his son-in-law, if they have not done anything wrong.
However, it goes without saying that any investigation always gives an impression that the accused is wrong. Also AFP said that “many diplomats see the UN move as a precursor to a full-blown war crimes investigation.” Therefore the Sri Lankan leaders’ apprehensions appear justifiable.
The Sri Lankan government so strongly protested to the appointment of the Panel that they stated they would refuse visa to the panel members, in case they wanted to visit the country. And a Government Minister, Wimal Weerawansa, 13 days after the appointment of the panel, has gone further and surrounded the UN compound, creating a crisis situation.
Former JHU leader Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thera slammed the action of teh Minister calling it a foolish act at this moment. And when the Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was condemning the protest in parliament on Wednesday, saying that it brought shame to the country, the MPs on the Government benches were heard jeering him. It is not clear as to what the stand of the government is on this protest. And although the Panel issue has become a barometer for patriotism, it is not clear as to who the real patriots are, NFF, JHU or the leaders who ordered the dispersal of the protest.
However, now that the UN Panel has been appointed, it is unlikely that it would be withdrawn due to protests or refusal of visas to the panel members. Government will have to defend itself as well as the political and military leadership from the possible war crimes charges, in light of that scenario, in spite of one’s approval or disapproval of it.
The Panel will have to possess a level of knowledge on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka in order to advice the UNSG and its members might wish to come to Sri Lanka to meet its leaders. If it had not been decided to refuse visas it would have been an opportunity for the Government to tell the UN panel it’s side of the story.
Marzuki Darusman, who is the Chair of the Sri Lanka Panel, has been quoted that Sri Lanka’s decision to deny him and the other two visas, is unfortunate, which seems to imply that he wanted to come to Sri Lanka.
The idea behind a possible visit by the Panel members to the country would not be other than gathering information pertaining to human rights, since they do not seem to have any mandate for negotiations with the Sri Lankan leaders. At the same time, such a gathering of information would amount to an investigation.
It is interesting to note that despite the assertions by the UN officials that the UN Panel will cover actions committed by both the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE, no one representing the rebels is jumpy about it. Rather people exposed before as LTTE supporters seem to be supportive of the UN Panel, or for that matter a probe by the UN. One reason may be that no LTTE leader-within the diaspora or in the country - is likely to be made accountable at the end of the work of such a Panel or a probe, since almost all LTTE leaders directly linked to killings, massacres, ethnic cleansing, torture or any other crime against humanity are no more, or are now with the Government.
Another point one has to take into account is that the UN’s attitude towards Sri Lanka and that of the Western leaders who are the driving force behind the world body is not the same as the one in respect of other countries accused of human rights violations, such as Saddam Hussain’s Iraq, Taliban’s Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and Cuba. Sri Lanka is another friendly country to the West as well as to the UN. Their leaders and officials frequently visit this country and meet with the country’s leaders.
~ www.dailymirror.lk ~ By M.S.M.Ayub