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Defining moment

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UN Human Rights chief Navaneetham Pillay’s forthcoming report to the Human Rights Council, extracts of which appeared this weekend in a Sri Lankan newspaper, makes a clear and unambiguous call: for an international investigation into the mass atrocities of the final months of the island’s civil war. The High Commissioner’s call will be welcomed by the diverse array of actors, both ‘local’ and international, who have been steadfastly campaigning for five years for accountability for the war crimes and crimes against humanity in which at least 70,000 people were systematically slaughtered in 2009. In particular, it will be enthusiastically welcomed by the Tamil people, for whom the mass killings – described by an earlier report by a UN panel of experts as amounting to ‘systematic targetting' and 'persecution’ of them – constituted genocide by the Sri Lankan state.

The High Commissioner’s forthcoming report represents a definitive moment in the protracted and hard-fought struggle for accountability for the mass atrocities. It is definitive because its findings carry the imprimatur of the world’s apex human rights institution, the office of the UNHRC, and are the result of a careful and impartial examination of an ever-growing body of evidence by international experts led by the High Commissioner - whose own expert credentials on internationally-led accountability for mass atrocities are impeccable. In short, its international standing is indisputable.

In rationalising the call for an international investigation, the High Commissioner makes clear that Sri Lanka’s domestic mechanisms have “consistently failed to establish the truth and achieve justice.” She adds, “this can no longer be explained as a function of time or technical capacity, but that it is fundamentally a question of political will.” This is to put it politely. In fact, the problem is much more profound. To the Sri Lankan state, its strategy of unrestrained violence in defeating the Tamil Tigers and the Tamil demand for self-rule - including the bombing of civilian concentrations and hospitals, as well as the mass execution of captured or surrendering combatants - is entirely justified in defence of the majoritarian, Sinhala nationalist state and social order which it has, since the war’s end, been aggressively consolidating. In short, as its leaders and officials state time and time again, the Sri Lanka state refuses to accept any wrongdoing whatsoever.

In the aftermath of the war, even as the international community (including its then closest allies the US and UK – who are now leading the international push for accountability) called for Sri Lanka to ‘win the peace’ by addressing Tamil ‘grievances’ by negotiating a ‘political solution’, demilitarisation, and ethnic reconciliation, the triumphant Sri Lanka state, supported by a now untrammelled majoritarian nationalism, did exactly the opposite, intensifying its majoritarian and supremacist state and social order-building efforts. Internally, this has produced continuing human rights abuses and repression, further militarisation of life in Tamil areas, and the wholesale marginalisation of the Tamils in political, economic, cultural and social terms. It is these themes that are outlined in the High Commissioner’s report albeit through the lens of the Council's mandate of human rights protection.

Internationally, the Sri Lankan state has responded to international pressure with defiance and aggression, on the one hand, and a series of evasive moves on the other. The Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) or, more recently, smoke about a Truth and Reconciliation Commission are intended to buy time, in which international attention would tire and wane. That it has not is a testament to the indefatigable efforts of the diverse coalition of international and local campaigners - who have been long subject to intense and hysterical attacks by the Colombo government.

Recently, as international pressure for accountability has intensified, Sri Lanka is attempting to shift the focus to its supposed efforts at ‘reconciliation’ as an alternative to accountability. According to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s secretary, Lalith Weeratunga, these are apparently two tracks that will never meet. In fact, however, they are inextricably linked. While the Sri Lankan state stands accused by the Tamil people of heinous crimes against them, in both the commission of these crimes and evading accountability for these, the state has been robustly supported by the Sinhala majority. It is notable that in the run up to the much anticipated March session of the UNHRC, Sri Lanka’s main opposition UNP party has been lambasting the government not for the mass atrocities, or for refusing to permit an independent investigation into them, but for ‘allowing’ Sri Lanka to become subject to international scrutiny. In other words, the lack of ‘political will’ is not a matter of the Sri Lankan government’s recalcitrance alone, it is deeply embedded in the country’s polarised ethnic politics.

Consequently, questions of ethnic reconciliation, a political solution, or lasting peace cannot arise in the absence of accountability. Thus, the stakes for the March deliberations at the UNHRC are much wider than upholding international law and international norms. As was the case in other parts of the world, it is only when it becomes clear - not only to President Rajapaksa’s government, but to the island’s broader political establishment and in particular, its various peoples - that Sri Lanka’s emergent pariah status will not reverse until those responsible for mass atrocities are identified and punished that such questions, as well as the 'rule of law', can become meaningful.

As such, the High Commissioner’s report should serve as both a filip for the international campaign for accountability and, in particular, a spur for concerted international action. It is notable that while much of the international community is more closely engaging with this undeniably international issue, some countries continue to drag their feet or even resist in support of Sri Lanka. It behoves responsible states across the world to take a clear and principled stand in Geneva in resolute support of the High Commissioner’s call for an international investigation into some of the worst mass atrocities of the 21st century.

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