by Gerrit Kurtz
Turning “credible” progress on accountability for alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka into a signature issue, British Prime Minister David Cameron needs to reflect the British role as former colonial master more strongly. The prospects for a renewed international engagement of Sri Lanka on this issue are quite promising, if Cameron and other like-minded leaders avoid three central pitfalls and support the South African initiative for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
At the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that took place 15-17 November, British Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a stern message to the Sri Lankan hosts: get clean on allegations of war crimes or face an international inquiry. He even set a deadline: March 2014, when the UN Human Rights Council is due to discuss progress made by the Sri Lankan government on achieving accountability for the horrific allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the last phase of the war in 2009. With this, Cameron turned Sri Lanka into his personal signature issue on which he needs to deliver now.
Allegations of war crimes
The last phase of the three decades long war, which ended in May 2009, saw a massive offensive by the Sri Lankan armed forces against the rebel Tamil Tigers strongholds. The army was closing in on ever more tiny pockets of land, where the rebels held around 300,000 civilians hostage in so-called “no-fire zones.” According to reports by the United Nations, the International Crisis Group and human rights NGOs, both sides committed horrific violations of international humanitarian law in the process of these fierce fights. Since the end of the war, the United Nations Secretary-General and the Human Rights Council have called for a thorough, independent inquiry into these allegations.
Because of these allegations, attending the Commonwealth meeting was highly controversial. The Canadian, Indian and Mauritian prime ministers stayed home, and the Labour opposition pressed Cameron to follow their example. Mindful of the central British role in the Commonwealth, he vowed to attend. Taking the bull by the horns, Cameron spearheaded the calls for an inquiry. He brought critical British journalists with him and visited the war-torn North of the island country as first foreign leader since 1948. Thus, with Sri Lanka’s past and ongoing human rights violations in the international spotlight, Cameron’s attendance turned the summit into a PR disaster for the Sri Lankan hosts.
Three challenges for the British government
If he is serious about the call for an inquiry into war crimes allegations, Cameron (and any like-minded Western leader) needs to consider three challenges to avoid perceptions of bias and selectivity.
First, he needs to calibrate his rhetoric. He should not underestimate the perception of a former colonial master pressing a small country with little economic importance. At home, the Rajapaksa government is popular among all ethnicities. This is not the least because Rajapaksa delivered what his predecessors had always promised: an end to random attacks by the Tamil Tigers that had terrorized the whole country.
Second, he needs to keep his coalition together. With the Sri Lankan government hyper-sensitized to bilateral pressure from the West, multilateral forums have proved to be most valuable. It was the UN Secretary General’s threat to appoint a UN panel of experts on accountability issues that led Sri Lanka to appoint its own, albeit flawed, Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Australia, that once criticised the Sri Lankan regime as well, has now pledged to assist Sri Lanka in its border management to “stop the boats” of illegal migration, as PM Tony Abbot had campaigned. During the CHOGM, Abbot even expressed some understanding for torture. If you look for a vote in the UN Human Rights Council, make sure you have the required majority (luckily, Australia is not a member).
Third, he should manage expectations about the consequences of an international inquiry. As long as the Rajapaksas are in power, there won’t be a full-scale investigation that includes command responsibility up to the top. International pressure can push the Sri Lankan government to prosecute a few mid-level perpetrators, but not a member of the Rajapaksa family itself. Similarly, any referral of Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court by the UN Security Council is highly unlikely given China’s support for the regime. The current Kenyan and Sudanese examples of indicted leaders enjoying considerable international support don’t bode well for going for the very top perpetrators as long as they are in power. Outsiders can help to promote an open political climate, but, ultimately, choosing the members of government remains an essentially domestic process.
Prospects for engagement
To be clear, this does not mean giving in to impunity. Eventually, all those responsible for allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity must be brought to justice. An international, independent Commission of Inquiry established by the UN, a universal organisation, might help to strengthen the credibility of allegations of war crimes among domestic constituencies in Sri Lanka. Even domestic voices otherwise highly critical of foreign meddling admit that the Rajapaksa government “brought this situation upon itself“ and that it was high time he “goaded his government into getting its act together on the human rights front, […] and took steps to implement the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission recommendations fully.”
Indeed, the Sri Lankan government has announced two concessions since the Commonwealth summit. First, the National Human Rights Commission was tasked with looking into allegations of torture since 2009, to be assisted by the Commonwealth Secretariat. Second, the government started a survey of the whole island to establish a credible number of the Sri Lankans that died or were wounded during the war. While welcome, these measures do not, however, amount to the full and independent inquiry Cameron called for.
In dialogues on human rights and transitional justice, who is demanding changes matters as much as the substance of such claims. After the scandals surrounding the “war on terror”, the Iraq war, the leaks regarding wide-spread surveillance and slow admittance of colonial atrocities, Western powers have decreasing credibility in the Global South on human rights accountability. Indeed, Sri Lankan newspapers are full these days with calls for Cameron to release the report of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war and stand up to its own human rights violations. President Rajapaksa noted “people in glass houses should not throw stones.”
Thus, the current South African diplomatic initiative for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sri Lanka deserves full support. Apparently, discussing its details was one of South African President Jacob Zuma’s most important motivations to attend the summit. The opposition Tamil National Alliance had been seeking advice on the South African experience for several years, and President Rajapaksa seems to catch on. If Cameron’s pressure contributes to the establishment of such a commission, it would help the troubled island’s society to finally move on.