Last week's opening of the UN Human Rights Council's 25th session gave rise to strong and welcome calls from key member states for an international inquiry into Sri Lanka’s mass atrocities. That Sri Lanka is not going to investigate the horrific crimes for which its leaders are responsible and that accountability depends entirely on an international mechanism of inquiry is now indisputable. Yet the initial draft text of a resolution on Sri Lanka – the third such resolution in as many years – has evoked a variety of responses from those who have been campaigning for accountability and justice for the past five years, ranging from cautious welcome to deep disappointment and dismay. There is clear and overarching agreement: the resolution is weak, and needs to be strengthened.
The calls rest on three recurring themes: establish an international Commission of Inquiry, provide immediate check on on-going repression, and lay the groundwork towards a durable political solution. Unsurprisingly these emanate most loudly from the North-East, where Tamils struggle against militarised occupation. It is crucial that the international community's recognition of Sri Lanka’s wartime atrocities and ongoing repression, whilst welcome, now leads to decisive and robust action in the form of a comprehensive international investigation that has the necessary mandate, sufficient resources and clear direction to ensure accountability in both contexts. The investigation required must have the capacity to gather actionable evidence, establish a chain of command and ultimately lead to criminal prosecutions, and to undertake this in the face of Sri Lanka's guaranteed attempts to disrupt and undermine. It is on this basis that calls have emerged for the UNHRC resolution to explicitly mandate the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry.
Amongst all those campaigning for an international investigation into Sri Lanka’s wartime atrocities and ongoing rights abuses, expectations were high in the run up to this March, especially following the British Prime Minister's pledge in November to pursue “a full, credible and independent” international inquiry if Sri Lanka failed to conduct one of its own. However, the draft resolution, which western diplomats in Geneva also privately concede is ‘vague’ and needs strengthening, has left many disappointed, with some questioning Mr. Cameron commitment to his pledge. The opposition Labour Party is amongst them, but it too has not joined the unprecedented and significant chorus calling specifically for a UN Commission of Inquiry from international human rights organisations and activists, including the esteemed Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to the main Tamil party, the TNA, Tamil civil society activists in the North-East, and all main Tamil diaspora organisations.
A weak resolution and investigative mechanism will not only fail to advance the possibility of accountability, but embolden the defiant and recalcitrant Sri Lankan government. Sri Lanka’s response to the draft resolution exemplifies why no amount of gentle cajoling will bring the state in line with international rules and norms. Its liberal façade and claims of reconciliation and development showcased to diplomatic missions in Geneva last week soon gave way to an unchecked, raw display of the character of the state in the Palais. In response to even modest calls for accountability, Sri Lanka chose to thumb its nose at the international community, explicitly reiterating its refusal to co-operate and seeking solace within a band of equally unsavoury states. Outcries of ‘colonialism’ and ‘foreign interference’ compounded with outright rejection of the draft resolution and the two previous ones, were topped with a defamatory attack on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as a “liar”.
Since May 2009, as the wheels of international justice have turned, albeit all too slowly, the long standing contradiction between Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism and the international community has come to the fore. Crucially, as President Rajapaksa's election rallies this weekend and the stance of the main Sri Lankan opposition illustrate, brazen defiance of international efforts to seek justice for the Tamil people is a key credential in securing votes amongst the Sinhala electorate. Indeed the notable handful of Sinhala voices who support the call for an international investigation had their faces displayed on state televisions as enemies of the state. As the emergence of yet more evidence of atrocities this weekend again illustrates, addressing Sri Lanka's mass atrocities will remain central to the question of ethnic reconciliation and a durable political solution. As we enter the second week of the Council's current session and collaborative efforts are made to strengthen the draft text, the international community must not lose sight of the primacy of accountability for lasting peace and stability in the island.
Illustration: Keera Ratnam