Sri Lanka faces toughest UN censure over war crimes

Updated 26 March 2014

Sri Lanka faces toughest UN censure over war crimes

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka faces fresh condemnation at the UN's top human rights body this week in a move that observers say could lead to an international criminal investigation for war crimes.
A US-led resolution demanding accountability for thousands of deaths of ethnic Tamil civilians five years ago is almost certain to be adopted at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.
President Mahinda Rajapakse has launched a diplomatic offensive to drum up support from smaller nations, but officials privately admit that it is a big ask given that even neighbouring India is siding with the US.
Rajapakse, who has tightened his grip on power after crushing Tamil separatists and declaring an end to 37 years of ethnic bloodshed in May 2009, feels he is being unfairly targeted by Western nations.
"This is like Cassius Clay using a schoolboy as a punching bag," Rajapakse said in a recent reference to the former heavyweight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali.
Sri Lanka regards China and Russia as allies who will block any Security Council resolution, but the two permanent members have no veto at the UNHRC where a simple majority is sufficient to approve a censure motion.
The draft resolution, seen by AFP in Geneva, asks the office of the UN human rights chief Navi Pillay to "undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka".
The resolution is to be taken up by the 47-member council on Thursday and followed by a possible vote.
Diplomats say Colombo has been dodging the issue of accountability, and its repeated promises to improve human rights no longer cut any ice because of a perceived lack of progress.
International watchdogs say there has actually been a deterioration of Sri Lanka's rights record since the end of the conflict.
The arrest last week of two leading rights activists under strict anti-terrorism laws triggered international condemnation.
"With these latest actions, we remain convinced that continued scrutiny by the Human Rights Council is necessary," the US embassy in Colombo said after Catholic priest Praveen Mahesan and fellow activist Ruki Fernando were detained as they met relatives who lost loved ones during the war.
Rajapakse's former top envoy to Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka, said the international community was wary of giving more time to Sri Lanka to ensure ethnic reconciliation and accountability five years after the fighting ended.
"I wouldn't blame any state, however friendly and well-intentioned, of being exceedingly wary of buying in," Jayatilleka said, writing in the daily "Island" newspaper.
In an article headlined "Last week, last chance in Geneva," he argued that this week would be the most significant for the nation since the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in May 2009.
The military's spectacular success in crushing the Tigers, who were known for their trademark suicide bombings, also sparked allegations that up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were ordered into a no-fire zone and bombed.
Charu Lata Hogg of London-based think tank Chatham House believes Sri Lanka may not agree to any foreign scrutiny of its war record, but the latest resolution could have a serious cumulative effect and lead to prosecutions at the International Criminal Court, based in The Hague.
"Any investigation conducted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (as proposed in the draft resolution) will ultimately need to be referred to the International Criminal Court to initiate prosecutable action," she said.
A Colombo-based European diplomatic source said any failure by Sri Lanka to conform with the resolution would accelerate the prospect of a international criminal investigation.
"The (draft) resolution says Sri Lanka must cooperate with an investigation," the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"If Colombo does not, it will only speed up an international criminal investigation that is down the road."
A new study published by international rights lawyer Yasmin Sooka, who had also been a UN advisor on post-war accountability issues in Sri Lanka, said there was evidence that merited action in the International Criminal Court.
"We urge the ICC prosecutor to explore the cases of individuals who bear the greatest responsibility," said Sooka's 110-page report unveiled last week following testimony from survivors of rights abuses in Sri Lanka.
Western diplomats said it was too early to discuss punitive action such as economic sanctions or travel bans, but the clock was ticking.
The US has said it was bringing a third resolution against Colombo in as many years because of its support for the Sri Lankan people and "concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation".
Debate on the resolution is scheduled to begin in Geneva on Wednesday.
Local officials have maintained that the resolution is an "unwarranted interference" in Sri Lanka's internal affairs.
However, in the short-term, the government is capitalising on the resolution to muster nationalist support ahead of a key local election.


Beyond Sri Lankan provincial elections


Beyond Sri Lankan provincial elections

As a large majority of the sizable 715,000 eligible voters from Sri Lanka’s troubled north went into makeshift polling booths to cast their preferences for electing a 38 member provincial council on September 21, India’s influence was written all over.
From a five member election observer team led by former election commission chief N. Gopalaswami to transparent ballot boxes imported especially from India for use in polls, New Delhi seems to have invested heavily on this democratic process which is expected to usher a renewed hope for genuine reconciliation. With a 72 million Tamil population of its own who shares the grief of their Sri Lankan brethren and the imminent threat of China making inroads into Sri Lanka through strategic investment, India does have a vested interest in setting things straight in the island nation.
Moreover, it is the India-Sri Lanka accord of 1987 — inked by President J.R. Jayawardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — that forms the basis for creating a council system to devolve power to provincial levels. India, having provided moral and logistical support to the ethnic Tamil movement in Sri Lanka, which later turned violent, somehow believed that the model of decentralized local self-governance could bring that elusive peace in this war-ravaged nation. Hence, New Delhi put subtle pressure on President Jayawardene to delegate effective power to Tamil dominated northern province and at the same time seek a referendum to ascertain whether the citizens of the east prefer to merge with the north. Despite stiff resistance from the then National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, Jayawardene went ahead with his plan to issue presidential proclamation for enabling the merger of northern and eastern provinces into one administrative unit in 1988.
However, this formula flopped after the bete noires, Sinhalas and Tamils, joined hand to defeat what they believed to be Indian imperialism in South Asia. For the foot soldiers of the Indian security establishment who were in the thick of things in northern Sri Lanka, trying to restore some semblance of order, those were nightmarish moments. Having bore the brunt of a violent backlash from both sides of the divide, most of them would indeed like to erase those turbulent days from memory permanently. Now that India is once again exerting her influence to broker a just deal, the back-channel interlocutors must not loose sight of the fact that a majority of the Sinhala people would link this attempt to New Delhi’s virtually non-existent territorial ambition. Let us not forget that years of rigid political discourse based on competitive nationalism — encouraged by both the Sinhala and Tamil political class — has vitiated the political atmosphere to such an extent that it has become extremely difficult for Rajapaksa to convince the Sinhala people that Sri Lanka’s well being lies in abandoning the dogmatic resistance to any sort of power sharing arrangement with the minorities. The skeptical majority is yet to recognize the hard reality that at the end of the day the Tamils, Muslims and Christians are also citizens of the same land and have equal rights to participate in nation rebuilding. Since, New Delhi’s excessive interference in Sri Lankan affairs over the years is one among the many reasons — apart from racial ostracism promoted by the Sri Lankan state historically — for the entrenchment of this deep rooted trust deficit in Sri Lankan society, it is incumbent on India to perform a perfect balancing act.
By this way, not only the Sinhalas can be assured that their giant northern neighbor harbors no ill will or aggressive designs against their motherland but also encourage the Rajapaksa regime to move beyond the optimistic first step of holding a long overdue provincial election, even if it is under duress.
Rajapaksa claims that, “this is the first free election in thirty years afforded to northern people to express themselves in a vote.” But with allegations of army intimidation coming to the fore, fixing the issue at the earliest is a political imperative for him. Otherwise the northern most part of the island nation, already the most militarized zone in the region, will gradually turn into another Kashmir-like fortress. Also, the state machinery would do well to resist the temptation of projecting high turnout in elections as sign of diminishing disenchantment. Let there be no doubt whatsoever that a long distance still needs to be traversed before the Sri Lankan government can genuinely win the hearts and minds of its minority populace.
Yes, there has been violation of election law, systematic misuse of state resources, assault on voters and bullying of candidates belonging to the Tamil parties in the run up to and during election. But such aberrations, visible even in the most vibrant of democracies like India, should be no reason for despondency. This election, with all its significance, was scrutinized minutely at the international level and the victorious Tamil National Alliance’s chief ministerial candidate C.V. Vigneswaran’s call for mutual cooperation and trust building will set the ball rolling for future negotiations. Besides, given the importance of Tamil vote share in Indian general elections slated for 2014 and the reality of Dravidian-Tamil politics revolving around the hopes and aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils, the ruling elites in New Delhi would inevitably be tempted to cajole Rajapaksa into delegating land and police power to the newly elected provincial council instead of seeking ways to dilute the 13th constitutional amendment. But the world eagerly await the day when Sri Lanka will achieve real integration with all the ethnic groups living side by side harmoniously, right from north to south.

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Trouble in the family: UK’s migrant embarrassment undermines Commonwealth reunion

Updated 3 min 15 sec ago

Trouble in the family: UK’s migrant embarrassment undermines Commonwealth reunion

  • Threats to deport some relatives of Caribbean workers who helped rebuild Britain in the decades after World War Two have soured the mood at the London reunion of the self-styled “Family.”
  • Barbados high commissioner (ambassador) Guy Hewitt told the BBC that some “Windrush Kids” were being treated as illegal immigrants even though they had gone to school in Britain and paid their taxes.

LONDON: As it prepares to leave the European Union, Britain’s attempts to revitalize links with former colonies at a lavish summit in London have been overshadowed by outrage over Prime Minister Theresa May’s treatment of Commonwealth migrants.
Threats to deport some relatives of Caribbean workers who helped rebuild Britain in the decades after World War Two have soured the mood at the London reunion of the self-styled “Family” — the 53 Commonwealth nations bound together by the shared history of the now-defunct British Empire.
“It is a matter of denial of the dignity of citizenship, which really cannot be restored,” Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness told the Good Morning Britain television show.
Speaking alongside May at the Commonwealth meeting, Holness hoped for the “speedy implementation” of the government’s proposals to fix the crisis.
“It is only fair. It will lead to security, certainly for those who have been affected, and it is the kind of inclusive prosperity for which we stand as Commonwealth peoples,” he said.
The affair has undermined efforts to revive the Commonwealth and promote ‘Global Britain’ — the rebranding exercise aimed at building trade partnerships and developing a new way of projecting British ‘soft power’ worldwide as the country prepares to exit the European Union.


 Barbados high commissioner (ambassador) Guy Hewitt told the BBC that some “Windrush Kids” were being treated as illegal immigrants even though they had gone to school in Britain and paid their taxes.
The Commonwealth evolved out of the British empire in the mid-20th century, and Queen Elizabeth has been its head since she ascended the throne in 1952. She regards the Commonwealth as the greatest success of her reign.
Critics say it is an outdated relic of Britain’s imperial past and attempts to give it new life are a desperate bid by nostalgic Britons to create an “Empire 2.0” that will cushion the impact of the country’s exit from the European Union.
Advocates, thousands of whom assembled from across the globe in London to talk about topics like trade, the environment and women’s rights, say it is a lifeline that gives small countries a seat at the table with larger states, and has huge potential to improve life for its 2.4 billion residents.
Despite a steady drumbeat of discontent over Windrush, Prime Minister May has been caught off-guard by the issue and forced into a series of apologies and admissions.
“These people are British, they are part of us,” May told parliament on Wednesday. “I want to say sorry to anyone who has had confusion or anxiety felt as a result of this.”
The crisis has cast Britain, and May in particular, in an unsympathetic light and raised awkward questions about how the aggressive pursuit of lower immigration sits alongside the desire to be an outward-looking global leader.
“This is a ​day of national shame,” said David Lammy, a London-based opposition lawmaker and son of Windrush migrants, who blamed rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain over recent years. Nationalist rhetoric was widely deployed by parties campaigning for Brexit.

If you lay down with dogs, you get fleas, and that is what has happened with the far-right rhetoric in this country.

David Lammy

“If you lay down with dogs, you get fleas, and that is what has happened with the far-right rhetoric in this country.”
Tighter border policies, which have left some migrants and their children struggling to prove their citizenship, are largely a legacy of May’s time as Home Secretary — a role she held for six years before becoming prime minister in 2016.
In 2012 May said: “The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration.”
As a result, life for many legal migrants who had never previously needed to prove their British heritage has become harder, with some of the Windrush generation sensing a recurrence of the racial discrimination they faced when they first arrived.
Sally Daghlian, chief executive of Praxis Community Projects, says her organization has supported more than 120 people who arrived from the Caribbean more than 50 years ago and have now been wrongly labelled as illegal immigrants.
In some cases, she said people have been refused entry to Britain after going to funerals overseas or denied access to health care, lost jobs, and even been made homeless because they do not have sufficient paperwork.
“Every story that I have come across has been appalling, it is difficult to quantify the human misery,” she said.
“We have created a Britain where there is great suspicion of anyone who has a migrant background.”
The episode has raised concerns about whether the Home Office can fairly handle the claims of EU residents after Brexit, when thousands of EU citizens will need to show they have the right to remain in Britain.
The European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, said full guarantees on EU citizens’ rights were needed in the wake of the crisis.
The affair has also prompted calls for the resignation of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, one of the most pro-EU ministers in May’s cabinet.
As international alliances go, the Commonwealth is a loose network linking large economies like India, population 1.3 billion, with tiny pacific states like Nauru, population 13,000.
Even within the family, there is disagreement about the Commonwealth’s direction, and Britain’s role within it: questions have been raised over whether the queen’s son and heir, Prince Charles, should succeed her as the head of the organization.
Opposition Labour Party leader and royal skeptic Jeremy Corbyn has said it may be time to allow the Commonwealth to decide its own head. May’s government said it would lobby for Charles.
“If you decide to give the headship to Charles then you are talking another 10 or 20 years of a kind of embalming fluid,” said Philip Murphy, professor of British and Commonwealth history at the School of Advanced Study. “It removes any kind of incentive for it to survive on its own merits.”
For Britain, hosting its first Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting for 20 years, the aim was made clear on the eve of the gathering: trade. And it may well be that the Windrush row will not affect such calculations in the end.
Even though the Commonwealth accounts for less than 10 percent of British exports, compared to 44 percent which go to the EU, bilateral trade deals with the likes of India, Canada and Australia are high on the government’s priority list.
“As the United Kingdom leaves the European Union we have the opportunity to reinvigorate our Commonwealth partnerships and usher in a new era harnessing the movement of expertise, talent goods and capital between our nations in a way that we have not done for a generation or more,” said trade minister Liam Fox.


Windrush generation

The so-called Windrush generation, named after one of the first ships bringing Caribbean citizens to Britain, arrived as children between 1948 and 1971 and some who cannot produce citizenship documentation are being denied health care, prevented from working, and even threatened with deportation.