Extension Given to Probe Sri Lanka’s War Crimes is No Surprise

Extension Given to Probe Sri Lanka’s War Crimes is No Surprise

In late March this year, the United Nations Humans Right Council (UNHRC) granted Colombo a further extension of two years to probe alleged war crimes committed during the civil war. The main political party of Sri Lanka’s Tamils, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), went along with this decision because it meant Sri Lanka would continue to be under international investigations for a further period.

Sri Lanka’s Tamil people are understandably disappointed. So are the people of the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, home to over seventy million Tamils. Two days prior to the resolution being passed allowing Sri Lanka an extension of two years, a demand was made by V Maiteryan from Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, the All India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhkam (AIADMK) in the Rajya Sabha that India oppose the resolution. Instead, New Delhi supported the resolution.

The extension comes as no surprise given the rationale behind UNHRC resolutions on Sri Lanka since 2012. The primary motive for the US backed resolutions in the UNHRC since 2012 was to increase US leverage vis-à-vis Sri Lanka and stem Sri Lanka’s drift towards China under the Rajapaksa Presidency. Indeed, as early as December 2009, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, “Sri Lanka: Re-charting US Strategy after the War” had noted that Sri Lanka’s strategic drift (towards) China will have consequences for U.S. interests in the region and had called for adopting a multifaceted, broader and more robust approach to secure US interests. In view of the substantial evidence pointing to war crimes that implicated Rajapaksa, the US was well equipped to pressure the Sri Lankan Government. The US backed resolutions between 2012 and 2014 calling for the war crimes to be investigated by a body of international experts was part of this robust approach. Rajapaksa, though unsettled by these resolutions was emboldened by Beijing’s continued support.

In January 2015, Rajapaksa was ousted and replaced by his former colleague Sirisena who appointed Ranil Wickramasinghe from the right-leaning United National Party (UNP) and the preferred candidate from Washington’s point of view as Prime Minister in the new ‘unity Government’. The regime change was directly attributable to  the US’ continued pursuit of the robust approach. In this case it involved working in tandem with New Delhi which had become uneasy with Colombo’s provocative stance of taking on a decidedly pro-Beijing position ignoring New Delhi’s attempts to court Colombo. Matters came to a head when Colombo’s provocative posturing involved permitting Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo during 2014 and brushing aside New Delhi’s concerns.

Having wielded the ‘stick’ to unsettle Rajapaksa, the US was quick to employ the ‘carrot’ to consolidate the new regime. Thus the March 2015 hearings of the UNHCR to consider progress made by Sri Lanka to investigate the war crimes was postponed to September 2015, a move initiated by the US, now an ally of the new regime. Although, there was some opposition from the EU countries on the grounds that the postponement may result in a precedence, the US stance prevailed. The US continued to wield the carrot during the September 2015 proceedings by amending the March 2014 resolution calling for an international investigations into a domestic accountability mechanism with international involvement. In effect, a hybrid mechanism that was a far cry from the international investigations envisaged earlier. The US intention to down grade the accountability process was made evident in late October 2015, when US Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal called for a collaborative resolution. Notwithstanding these developments, a senior member of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), M A Sumanthiran told this writer in early November 2015 that he was confident of the resolutions being implemented as agreed in view Britain’s continued support. The extension granted in March 2017 suggests this confidence to be misplaced. In April 2016 Samantha Power, U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, in an attempt to further reassure Colombo, made an extraordinary statement claiming that Sri Lanka has, since January 2015, emerged as a global champion of human rights and democratic accountability.   

The US backed resolutions in the UN on Sri Lanka’s war crimes passed between 2012 and 2114 were designed to pressure the Rajapaksa regime which had become a close ally of Beijing. Thereafter, the resolutions were intended to maintain US influence by placating Sri Lanka’s Sinhala establishment which is opposed to the very idea of war crimes. The Sri Lankan President Sirisena’s flat denial of allegations of’ war crimes in an interview with Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, in January 2016 and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga ruling out the involvement of courts to probe war crimes in February 2017 are products of this mindset.

The two year extension granted to implement the earlier resolutions is patently part of the strategy to keep the Sinhala political establishment onside.

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