Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS: Sri Lanka Locks Horns with UN over Experts’ Panel

Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Mar 10 2010 (IPS) - The war of words between the Sri Lankan government and the United Nations has begun all over again, this time over the creation of an experts’ panel on the island’s human rights record.

UN chief Ban Ki-Moon with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama during his visit to the island in August 2009. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

UN chief Ban Ki-Moon with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama during his visit to the island in August 2009. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon wants to appoint this panel, but Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa says it is “unwarranted and uncalled for”.

This week’s posturing is the latest episode in a saga that began about two years ago when the United Nations, especially the U.N. Human Rights Council, raised concerns over the conduct of the final phase of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war.

The Sri Lankan government defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels, who waged a bloody war for decades to set up an independent homeland for the Tamil minority, in May 2009. The war cost this South Asian island nation more than 70,000 lives.

Sri Lanka reacted testily to international criticism of the conduct of the war.

The Rajapaksa government has staved off action against it at the Human Rights Council and at the Security Council, with assistance from friendly countries like India and China.

Just two weeks ago, Sri Lanka crossed swords with the British government after its foreign secretary, David Miliband, attended a meeting of a Tamil group in London that it considers a front for the Tigers.

“There is a pervasive sense in the west especially that there are rights violations happening here,” Terrence Purasinghe, senior lecturer at the Sri Jayawardenepura University here, told IPS.

“It makes good press when the government takes on the UN and United Kingdom over these allegations,” he added. “But for these charges to go away, the government has to convince the west that it has dealt with these allegations. Till that is done, these charges will keep coming.”

“The panel (of experts) can only advise. Any decision will have to be ratified by the Security Council and there, countries like India and China will back Sri Lanka,” Anurudha Pradeep, another lecturer at the same university, pointed out.

“Some of these allegations stem from the time of the war,” he said, adding that international concerns will not go away easily. “Now the war is over, and the government must make sure that there is no chance that similar allegations can be made during times of peace.”

On Mar. 5, Ban Ki-Moon’s office announced that the U.N. secretary-general had a telephone discussion with Rajapaksa informing him about the expert panel.

But the contents of the conversation appeared different when Rajapaksa’s office released its own statement. The telephone call was subsequent to a letter written by Ban and the panel was not welcome at all, it said.

“He (Rajapaksa) said it was both unprecedented and unwarranted as no such action had been taken about other states with continuing armed conflicts on a large scale, involving major humanitarian catastrophes and causing the deaths of large numbers of civilians due to military action,” his office said.

Sri Lanka has always viewed critical action and comments from the United Nations as being prompted by an anti-Sri Lanka lobby of non-governmental organisations and those backing the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Rajapaksa had alluded to this in his conversation with Ban.

“The Secretary-General was told that the allegations about Sri Lanka were motivated by misrepresentations by apologists of the LTTE, and by some Non-Government Organisations that due to being so misguided or otherwise, were clearly working on an agenda that was directed against Sri Lanka,” Rajapksa’s office said.

Two days later, Ban himself said that he was going ahead with appointing the panel despite Rajapaksa’s opposition. He told reporters that he was concerned about lack of progress in Sri Lanka over key issues including reconciliation, accountability and issues relating to the internally displaced population.

More than 100,000 displaced people remain in welfare camps in areas that used to be held by the Tigers. They were among the more than 280,000 civilins who fled in the northern Vanni region after the fighting wound down in May 2009. The other 150,000 have since returned to their home villages.

“I had a frank and honest exchange of views with President Rajapaksa, Thursday night, last week, over issues that were of concern to both of us. This included moving forward on political reconciliation, further movement on the condition of internally displaced persons, and the establishment of an accountability process,” Ban told reporters at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

He indicated that there could more actions from the world body on Sri Lanka. “I made clear to President Rajapaksa that I intend to move forward on a Group of Experts which will advise me on setting the broad parametres and standards on the way ahead on establishing accountability.”

For his part, Rajapaksa warned of a hardening stance if Ban went ahead with the panel. “President Rajapaksa reiterated to the UNSG (U.N. secretary-general) that any appointment of such a panel as intended, would compel Sri Lanka to take necessary and appropriate action in that regard,” his office said.

The Rajapaksa government has never been loath to take on international powerhouses.

After the government berated the British government for Miliband’s address at the Global Tamil Forum, Minister G L Peiris said: “Miliband was actively supporting the regrouping of the Tigers and their networks.”

This is not the first time that the Rajapaksa government has resisted the setting up of advisory panels.

It rejected an investigation panel set by the European Union last year to investigate allegations of rights abuses. In February, the EU announced that it was suspending concessionary tariff regulations on imports from Sri Lanka based on the findings of the investigation.

Domestically, there is a very real political dimension to this diplomatic sparring.

The Rajapaksa government has always identified itself with nationalistic support groups that do not take lightly what they see as foreign interference. It has suggested that the recent spike in concern in international fora over rights violations in Sri Lanka was linked to parliamentary elections set for Apr. 9.

“President Rajapaksa recalled how interested forces attempted such interference, including by trying to draw in the UN and other bodies in the recently concluded Presidential Election too, which has been internationally accepted as being peaceful, free and fair,” Rajapaksa told Ban during their phone conversation, according to his office.

Looking suspiciously at the calls to form the panel of experts, many backers of the Rajapaksa administration – especially its hard-line stance against possible foreign involvement – view it as an attempt to influence the election.

“This is all part and parcel of an international conspiracy,” Gunadasa Amerasekera of the National Patriotic Movement told IPS. “First we had these calls for an international investigation, then the former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka made claims of war crimes and now this.”

Fonseka, who is now in military custody, lost to Rajapaksa at the January presidential election. The Rajapaksa camp has charged that his campaign was funded by foreign sources.

“This is all a big effort to bring the President and the defence secretary to an international war crimes tribunal, and we will not allow that,” Amerasekera added.

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