How UNHRC’s focus on Sri Lanka’s past, can cost the country its future
As the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) gears up to confront Sri Lanka in September to push for a war crimes inquiry, we hope they keep in mind the delicate transition that the country’s system of governance is undergoing right now. After being subject to decades of patronage-based politics—where a handful of political elites were able to hold the country to ransom for their own vested interests—there is some chance that a modicum of checks-and-balances might be finally introduced to allow Sri Lankans to hold their leaders accountable. However, this process of change has not been easy and has been marked with as many reversals as with achievements. And it continues to remain quite fragile with many more challenges remaining. Obviously, the powerful political-elites, unhappy at having their entitlements trimmed, are determined not to give-up without a fight.
Unfortunately, the impending inquiry at UNHRC has become convenient fodder for these disgruntled politicians. Sensing a clear dissonance between UNHRC's priorities—which is calling for a war crimes investigation with retributory/punitive implications—and those of a majority of Sri Lankans—who are leaning more towards symbolic and compensatory reconciliation measures—these politicians have pounced on the reform-minded regime to caricature them as either being too weak to stand up to the West or being their outright lackey. This has put into question all their policies—including their governance reform agenda. Therefore, greater the pressure that the UNHRC manages to mount on Sri Lanka in September, greater the chances that this prophesy of the naysayers would actually come true.
The fundamental difference between the UNHRC and the majority of Sri Lankans is the way they view the last stages of the war. For the UNHRC, which is taking a cold hard look with some benefit of hindsight, the force used by the Sri Lankan military to defeat the LTTE was clearly ‘excessive’. For average Sri Lankans, on the other hand, who lived through the fear-psychosis/trauma associated with LTTE’s 30-year brutal reign, no force that led to their defeat can be considered as 'excessive'. The problem is that the responsibility for the degree of force used in the final battle cannot be placed exclusively in the hands of a group of soldiers or political leaders. Every Sri Lankan who followed the ‘almost improbable’ progress of the military with bated breath and who prominently displayed the Sri Lankan flag with a new sense of national pride are equally guilty of justifying any means necessary to eradicate the LTTE.
Therefore, when the UNHRC or any other outsider considers the degree of force used as ‘excessive’ they are not passing judgment on the Sri Lankan military alone but also on a majority of Sri Lankans. And obviously these Sri Lankans represent a powerful political constituency. And the political elites unhappy with the ongoing governance reforms have not lost time in carefully positioning themselves to take full advantage of any collective sense of indignation/outrage that these Sri Lankans would feel at any poorly thought-through decision of the UNHRC. And if by any chance, these elites succeed to mobilize this constituency to serve their selfish ends, it augurs very badly for the governance reforms underway. Therefore, UNHRC’s fixation with Sri Lanka’s past can end up costing the country’s delicate transition towards better governance—which happens to be the country’s future.