Sri Lanka’s new preparedness to allow a three-member expert panel on war crimes appointed by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to visit the country is clearly linked to international economic pressure and the diplomatic embarrassments recently suffered by President Mahinda Rajapakse’s regime, proving that - as we argued last week - only direct pressure can bring about Colombo's compliance with international norms, and that ‘quiet diplomacy’ is utterly ineffective.
Barely had Mr. Ban announced his appointment of the panel in June, Colombo reacted with characteristic vehemence. Declaring “Sri Lanka regards the appointment of the Sri Lanka Panel of Experts as an unwarranted and unnecessary interference with a sovereign nation,” the government vowed it would not issue visas to the three experts or otherwise cooperate.
The government also railed against the ‘colonialism’ of international human rights groups and encouraged noisy protests – including a hunger strike by a minister – outside the UN’s offices in Colombo. The government also launched its own ‘Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission’ – rightly slammed by international rights groups as “cynical attempt by Sri Lanka to avoid a serious inquiry that would bring genuine accountability.”
However, this weekend Colombo began to bow: “If a formal request is made by the UN Panel to visit Sri Lanka, the government will consider it,” External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Bandula Jayasekara said. Mr. Ban meanwhile said “after long consultations between myself and President Rajapaksa I am pleased that the Panel of Experts is now able to visit Sri Lanka and meet with the [LLRC].”
It is clear the climb-down is consequent to both the economic pressures - such as the withdrawal of the EU's trade subsidies - as well as the stinging humiliations suffered by President Rajapaksa during his recent visit to London. For all the self-satisfied hectoring about ‘sovereignty’, it was only a matter of time before reality began to bite the heavily indebted state.
As veteran Tamil journalist J. S. Tissainayagam, who was released from Sri Lankan government custody and allowed to leave the country earlier this year - also after international pressure- said recently, “the more shaming that is done, the more pressure that is put is put publicly, the more the government is willing to act.” Conversely, ‘quiet diplomacy’, as he also said, does not make Colombo more receptive to international demands.
It very much remains to be seen if Colombo will follow through and allow the UN panel to visit and properly conduct its inquiries. As Mr. Ban himself noted, “I sincerely hope that the Panel of Experts will be able to have good cooperation [from Sri Lanka], to have an accountability process and make progress as soon as possible.” Moreover, it is not clear what is served by the UN panel meeting Sri Lanka’s sham commission.
Nonetheless, the community of international and Tamil actors who have been actively seeking an international investigation into Sri Lanka’s war crimes can take satisfaction that their efforts are paying off. There is no doubt justice will be a long time coming for the genocidal slaughter of Tamils in 2009 – and the many war crimes and crimes against humanity inflicted before, and since, then. (It is worth remembering that whilst Serb forces massacred 8,000 Bosniak civilians in 1995, this was only recognised by international community as an act of genocide in 2004.) But with Sri Lanka beginning to buckle under international pressure, the campaign for accountability should be stepped up.
Concomitantly, the war crimes-related evidence against President Rajapakse and Sri Lanka’s other top civilian and military leadership is mounting. Quite apart from details being gathered from victims and collated by international actors, both governmental and non-governmental, and the data accumulated by the UN even as the mass killings were conducted in the closing months of Sri Lanka’s war, the Wikileaked US cables recently made public also offer new leads and avenues of inquiry.