Sri Lanka faces toughest UN censure over war crimes

Updated 26 March 2014
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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.

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Beyond Sri Lankan provincial elections

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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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7-year-old immigrant girl dies after Border Patrol arrest

Updated 27 min 26 sec ago
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7-year-old immigrant girl dies after Border Patrol arrest

  • Immigrants, attorneys and activists have long raised issues with the conditions of Border Patrol holding cells
  • The death comes after a toddler died in May just after being released from an ICE family detention facility in Texas

LAS CRUCES, New Mexico: A 7-year-old girl who crossed the US-Mexico border with her father last week died after being taken into the custody of the US Border Patrol, federal immigration authorities confirmed Thursday.
The Washington Post reports the girl died of dehydration and shock more than eight hours after she was arrested by agents near Lordsburg, New Mexico. The girl was from Guatemala and was traveling with a group of 163 people who approached agents to turn themselves in on Dec. 6.
It’s unknown what happened to the girl during the eight hours before she started having seizures and was flown to an El Paso hospital.
In a statement, Customs and Border Protection said the girl had not eaten or consumed water in several days.
The agency did not provide The Associated Press with the statement it gave to the Post, despite repeated requests.
Processing 163 immigrants in one night could have posed challenges for the agency, whose detention facilities are meant to be temporary and don’t usually fit that many people.
When a Border Patrol agent arrests someone, that person gets processed at a facility but usually spends no more than 72 hours in custody before they are either transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement or, if they’re Mexican, quickly deported home.
The girl’s death raises questions about whether border agents knew she was ill and whether she was fed anything or given anything to drink during the eight-plus hours she was in custody.
Immigrants, attorneys and activists have long raised issues with the conditions of Border Patrol holding cells. In Tucson, an ongoing lawsuit claims holding cells are filthy, extremely cold and lacking basic necessities such as blankets. A judge overseeing that lawsuit has ordered the agency’s Tucson Sector, which patrols much of the Arizona-Mexico border, to provide blankets and mats to sleep on and to continually turn over surveillance footage from inside the cells.
The Border Patrol has seen an increasing trend of large groups of immigrants, many with young children, walking up to agents and turning themselves in. Most are Central American and say they are fleeing violence. They turn themselves in instead of trying to circumvent authorities, many with plans to apply for asylum.
Agents in Arizona see groups of over 100 people on a regular basis, sometimes including infants and toddlers.
Arresting such groups poses logistical problems for agents who have to wait on transport vans that are equipped with baby seats to take them to processing facilities, some which are at least half hour north of the border.
The death of the 7-year-old comes after a toddler died in May just after being released from an ICE family detention facility in Texas, and as the administration of Donald Trump attempts to ban people from asking for asylum if they crossed the border illegally. A federal appeals court has temporarily blocked that ban, but the administration asked the US Supreme Court to reinstate it Tuesday.
Cynthia Pompa, advocacy manager for the ACLU Border Rights Center, said migrant deaths increased last year even as the number of border crossing dropped.
“This tragedy represents the worst possible outcome when people, including children, are held in inhumane conditions. Lack of accountability, and a culture of cruelty within CBP have exacerbated policies that lead to migrant deaths,” Pompa said.