Sri Lanka’s Duty on War Crimes – A Riposte to NYT
The New York Times recent editorial ‘Sri Lanka’s Duty on War Crimes’ calls collaborating with a UN-led inquiry into war crimes a ‘duty’ of Sri Lanka. It insists that UN’s involvement is essential to guarantee the inquiry is independent, witnesses are protected, and perpetrators are punished. While we fully agree that Sri Lanka needs to deal with its legacy of war, we are not convinced if a UN-led inquiry would be the best way to go. Instead, we feel a homegrown and locally-owned process would be much more appropriate.
Not many outsiders fully grasp the complex emotions surrounding Sri Lanka’s fight against the LTTE—an organization internationally designated as a terrorist group. The UN’s particular focus on just the last stages highlights this. Undoubtedly, what happened during those few months is extremely unfortunate. For sure, the collateral damage was very high. However, to focus exclusively on this stage without regard to the collective trauma that all Sri Lankans suffered under LTTE’s three-decades reign of terror is to place the actions of Sri Lanka's military out of context. This would be similar to second-guessing Osama bin Laden's summary execution by US forces without paying attention to the horrible events of 9/11 or the unique emotions that they triggered. As such, we feel, only Sri Lankans—Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims—who lived through and suffered under LTTE’s campaign of terror can accurately gauge the proportionality of the force used by government forces in eradicating the group.
Also it is important to keep in mind the concern that Prof. Mahmood Mamdani highlights about such ‘perpetrators’ having a domestic constituency. This becomes a particular concern given the delicate political transition that Sri Lanka is undergoing right now. In that sense, while we welcome the UN Human Rights Council’s decision to delay the release of its report on the issue, we fail to understand the purpose of such a report when a locally produced “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission Report” was widely commended for its objectivity and impartiality. Such uninvited external efforts can seriously undermine the local-ownership of the process. At the end of the day, Sri Lanka needs a reconciliation process for itself. As such, the ’duty’ it owes is to its own people—not to the UN or to the West. Therefore, any inquiry or verdict has to be governed by the local understanding of fairness and justice and not by those of Geneva or The Hague. Lighter the UN’s footprint can be on the process the better.