War Crimes and the UN Human Rights Council Resolution on Sri Lanka

On 22 March, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted the draft resolution, proposed by the United States, on reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka. It was issued in a context of war crimes accusations over the conduct of Sri Lankan forces in the final throes of the conflict with the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) in April-May 2009, including a chilling documentary from Channel 4’s Jon Snow which has been influential in turning international opinion against Sri Lanka’s president, Mr Rajapaksa, and his government.

The resolution takes note of the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) of Sri Lanka, a commission set up by the government to investigate the conduct of the civil war whose mandate and findings have been widely condemned by human rights groups as a whitewash. The Human Rights Council resolution reads: “Noting with concern that the [LLRC] report does not adequately address serious allegations of violations of international law”, and calls on the government to take additional steps to initiate credible and independent actions to ensure justice, equality, accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, including an action plan to address alleged violations.

Remarkably, India was among the 24 states that voted for the resolution, while 15 states opposed and 8 abstained. This has resulted in a massive fallout in India-Sri Lanka relations. According to Colonel R Hariharan, a military intelligence specialist on South Asia, India’s vote is a major departure from the past in India-Sri Lanka relations. Indeed India worked behind the scenes in 2009 to scupper just such a vote on a similar resolution at the Human Rights Council, introduced by the US using the Czech Republic as a proxy. The reason for India’s volte face is widely accredited to coalition politics, with the need for the ruling Congress party to shore up support in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Hariharan sees wider strategic implications however, with India sending a clear signal that Tamil concerns have not been jettisoned in the rush to embrace Sri Lanka as the vanguard of its Indian Ocean security policy.

Rajapaksa, elected in 2005, abandoned the peace process and waged war on the LTTE, which he won in the grim months of 2009 when tens of thousands were killed. In the process he has overseen the militarisation of Sri Lanka and the alarming and devastating erosion of independent institutions. The backlash from government sources in the wake of the Human Rights Council resolution against “traitors” has seen the public relations minster threatening to “break the limbs” of rights activists or journalists who made statements against the country in Geneva. This response is echoed in a general feeling that the government is being singled out for condemnation, with commentators expressing the need to emphasise the role of the LTTE in contributing to the human rights catastrophe, which could have formed part of the Human Rights Council resolution preamble.

However this is not about the LTTE, which is of course also responsible for any war crimes it may have committed; but rather the actions of the Sri Lankan government which commanded the forces in April-May 2009. As Perera notes in the article above, the legal question is whether the Human Rights Council resolution can be interpreted as “an instrument to pursue charges of war crimes”. The LLRC report did not have the mandate to address issues of accountability.

The Channel 4 documentary should be watched by anyone with an interest in human rights, being one of the most upsetting and vicious depictions of an endgame in wartime that completely eschewed any sense of military necessity or proportionality that I have seen. Sri Lanka enjoyed widespread international support when it conducted the war, including from the US and India. It has now lost even its closest ally as mounting evidence of atrocities emerges.

War Crimes and the UN Human Rights Council Resolution on Sri Lanka

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