U.N. resolution may not offer justice for Sri Lanka’s war victims

Internally displaced ethnic Tamil civilians flock around a well at a camp for displaced in Manik Farm in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka. 2009. (Credit: AP Photo)

This is a part of a series of dispatches correspondent Tom Murphy is writing from New York during the U.N. General Assembly and all the related events.

A United Nations resolution on human rights and reforms in Sri Lanka is expected to pass on Wednesday, with the backing of the United States, Sri Lanka and other countries. But human rights advocates are disappointed with the sudden shift in U.S. policy that led the resolution do remove language ensuring an international investigation into alleged war crimes committed at the end of the civil war in 2009.

“It is extremely disappointing,” said Samir Kalra, senior director and human rights fellow for the Hindu American Foundation, in an interview with Humanosphere. “It’s difficult to say what this eventual process will look like but it’s doubtful whether it will be able to achieve the ultimate goal of truth, justice and reconciliation.”

More than 100,000 people were killed as the result of the decades-long conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Major rights violations were perpetrated by both sides in the conflict, but it is the final military offensive that defeated the Tigers that garners most attention. As many as 40,000 ethnic Tamils were killed at the time, with more than two-thirds allegedly occurring in safe zones.

The government of Sri Lanka recently began taking steps to initiate an investigation into the conflict. Human rights groups pushed for years for justice for the victims, and steps taken to restore land to those who were displaced. The U.S. initially supported an international process for the investigation – a key component to ensuring justice is delivered. That is now gone.

“This current consensus draft has been watered down from a previous version and diverts significantly from the recommendations of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’s recent report,” said Kalra.

The report included a recommendation for a hybrid international-domestic justice mechanism. International judges, prosecutors and investigators would be used to conduct the investigation and carry out procedures in Sri Lankan courts. The proposed resolution gives only a cursory role to the international community, effectively making it a purely domestic mechanism.

“There is some language in the resolution that provides an opportunity for reform in the future, but it’s yet to be seen whether they will be implemented,” said Kalra. “It’s concerning that U.S. has been this willing to back down already on its earlier position on an international investigation, who’s to say they won’t back down from putting pressure on the Sri Lankan government to implement these reforms going forward as well.”

A report published earlier this month by Amnesty International urged the U.N. Human Rights Council to enact the recommendations made by the OHCHR investigation. It stressed the importance of strong international participation in the process in order to ensure that people responsible for committing crimes in Sri Lanka are punished.

That does not appear likely. Kalra attributes the change in stance by the U.S. to its renewed ties with Sri Lanka. Elections less than a year ago brought in a government more friendly to the U.S. With the opportunity to build a stronger relationship at the expense of China, issues of human rights fade to a lesser concern.

“Human rights and religious freedom are often the first to be sacrificed at the altar of geopolitics. Human rights are often used to push agendas, but when they don’t advance an agenda, they often take a back seat to other geopolitical and policy concerns,” said Kalra.

With a day left, there is still a small chance the resolution will change before it is adopted. Though that is not terribly likely. Kalra, other activists and Sri Lankan civil society will have to look to continue applying pressure on the government as the internal investigation commences.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.