The Real Lessons of Sri Lanka’s War: A Global Power Shift and the End of Human Rights

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Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, talks with the members of a Sri Lankan commission that investigated alleged abuses during the country's civil war before receiving their final report in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011. (Photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP)

 


The grandly named “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” submitted its final report to Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday. The document is meant to account for the failure of a 2002 ceasefire and the events leading up to the end of the country’s 26-year-long war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who were defeated in May 2009. On paper, the LLRC looks something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission convened after the end of apartheid rule in South Africa — more than 1,000 witnesses testified before the LLRC, and the Sri Lankan government has trumpeted the LLRC as an effort to help the country move on after a generation of ethnic conflict. In fact, the real “lessons learnt” are much different.

First, Sri Lanka’s experience reveals the true price of ending conflict through a purely military solution: accountability and political compromise. Thanks to its decisive victory over the Tigers, Rajapaksa’s government is so popular that it has little incentive to make any real effort at political reconciliation. Talks with ethnic Tamil political parties have gone nowhere; and the LLRC report has shed no light on any of the allegations of war crimes committed during the last phase of the war. Instead, the LLRC asks the government to investigate incidents that may have occurred but does not name any in particular. Even without any investigation, though, the LLRC calls the shocking documentary aired earlier this year by Britain’s Channel 4 “a total fabrication.”

Rajapaksa’s government has sent a clear message about what happens to Sri Lankans who make claims about human rights abuses. On Friday, Nov. 18,  General Sarath Fonseka, who led the Sri Lankan Army’s victorious campaign against the LTTE,  was found guilty by a panel of three judges of “propogating a false rumor” and sentenced to three years in prison. The verdict deals with Fonseka’s statements in a newspaper interview in which he implied that defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa (the brother of the president) ordered the killing of Tamil Tiger leaders who had offered to surrender. Rajapaksa has repeatedly denied that any such incident occurred. Sympathetic local media in Sri Lanka have accepted the government’s assertion, although it has never been fully investigated.

The Norwegian government also recently released a report on its role in the failed peace process and its attempt to intervene toward the end of the war. Here is what the report says about the same incident:

“In the night between 17 and 18 May, Nadesan (head of the LTTE Political Wing) and Pulidevan (head of the LTTE Peace Secretariat) contact the Norwegians as well as the UK and US embassy, the ICRC, and Chandra Nehru (a Tamil politician in Colombo) indicating their last-minute willingness to surrender. Following hasty negotiations with presidential advisor and brother Basil Rajapaksa, they are told to walk across the frontline with a white flag. The last phone conversation is held shortly before their departure. Hours later they are reported shot.”

The Sri Lankan government can afford to ignore this and other possible alleged human rights violations because the geopolitical balance of power has shifted so decisively toward the East — the second lesson for the rest of the world from Sri Lanka’s war. The Norwegian government’s report is long, but worth reading in full for its methodical, self-critical observations on this issue, like this one: “Apart from a milestone in Sri Lanka’s history, the rise and fall of the peace process is thus also part of a global story of declining Western leverage and the reassertion of state sovereignty.” Over the last several years, economic, political and military support from the United States and Western Europe have become less and less important to Sri Lanka. According to the report, Rajapaksa’s government relied on military help from China and Pakistan; the E.U. and U.S. may be Sri Lanka’s biggest trading partners but China is quickly stepping in with billions of dollars of infrastructure investment. Sri Lanka can ignore diplomatic pressure from the U.S. and Europe because it has China and Russia in its corner every time the issue of abuses during the war comes up before the United Nations. India, too, has played both sides diplomatically. During the last months of the war, the Norwegian report says,

India provides vital radar and intelligence information to the Sri Lanka forces. Delhi maintains it will not provide offensive military assets – due to the political sensitivity of Indian weapons being used against Tamils – but off the record, it does not object to Sri Lanka purchasing weaponry elsewhere…. It is also doubtful India has any interest in the LTTE surviving the end of the war. Non-Western countries tell the Sri Lankan government to ignore Western pressure and ‘get it over with,’ according to the testimony of a Sri Lankan diplomat.

Since the end of the war, New Delhi has pushed the Sri Lankan government to address the concerns of its Tamil minority and work toward a political settlement. But having given its support to Rajapaksa while his government was finishing off the Tigers, it seems unlikely that India will abandon him if his war methods come under scrutiny. The U.S., of course, does have a role to play. The U.S. State Department, under the leadership of Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake, has been quietly pushing for accountability in Sri Lanka and for greater engagement with Tamil political parties. Blake, who was U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka from 2006 until May 2009, has made several recent trips to the region and raised these issues. In September, Blake called on the LLRC to produce a credible report: “if it’s not a credible process, there will be pressure for some sort of alternative mechanism” — in other words, an independent international investigation. Now that the LLRC has submitted its report, the U.S. will have to decide whether tiny Sri Lanka is worth spending diplomatic capital on in its dealings with two Asian giants, China and India.

Whatever happens, Sri Lanka also serves up a third lesson: the notion of “human rights” loses its moral force when it is seen as a purely western concept. No country has been more effective at playing up that dichotomy than Sri Lanka. Every time Rajapaksa is criticized by western governments or western media, he uses it to his advantage, playing up his willingness to stand up to the forces of imperialism. Western-led diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions may be starting to work, dramatically, in Burma but that model will no longer work in the new Asian century. What will take its place? Sri Lanka offers the rest of the world — not just the West — the chance to come up with the answer.

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