THE US government has rejected the war crimes allegations against it in regard to its conduct of the war in Afghanistan. This is yet another indication how governments across the world seek to justify their actions in times of war. Three decades ago, when the war with the LTTE was heightening, there was a debate about whether president JR Jayewardene had misquoted the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero as saying that ‘In times of war, the laws fall silent.’ In the past week, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo condemned a decision by the International Criminal Court to probe alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Afghanistan by US forces. He said, ‘we will take all necessary measures to protect our citizens from this renegade, unlawful so-called court.’
On the other hand, ICC prosecutors say they have evidence that US forces in Afghanistan ‘committed acts of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, rape and sexual violence.’ An international NGO based in the US, Human Rights Watch welcomed the ICC’s ruling, writing in a statement, ‘The ICC Appeals Chamber’s decision to greenlight an investigation of brutal crimes in Afghanistan despite extreme pressure reaffirms the court’s essential role for victims when all other doors to justice are closed.’
In such a context, it is not a cause for surprise that the Sri Lankan government should also be resisting the pressures from the UN Human Rights Council and international NGOs such as Human Rights Watch to move forward on the issue of accountability for war time human rights violations. Addressing the UNHRC session, foreign minister Dinesh Gunawardena pointed out that the allegations of war crimes against General Shavindra Silva and against the government in general were still unverified and, therefore, that punitive action taken on that basis was uncalled for. He said, ‘We also stress that there are no proven allegations against individuals on war crimes or crimes against humanity in the OISL report or in any subsequent official document.’ The Sri Lanka government has also pointed out that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that was appointed in 2011 observed that there was no evidence of systemic war crimes sanctioned by government policy. It left open the possibility of individual crimes and called on the government to set up a separate inquiry into those matters.
THE UN Human Rights Council and its institutions, together with international and national NGOs and Tamil political parties are currently putting pressure on the Sri Lankan government with regard to accountability issues. The pressure from within the country is particularly strong on the issue of missing persons and needs to be heeded. Currently there are over 20,000 cases of missing persons registered with government appointed commissions of inquiry. The increasing pressure of questions regarding how, why and where they went missing may be the reason why there are more and more media reports that the government is planning to control the activities of NGOs in the country. There is a recent circular issued by the district secretariat in Mullaitivu asking NGOs to reduce their training and soft skills strengthening work including in human rights and to focus more on infrastructure development activities in support of the government’s commitment to development.
The district secretariat has said that action plans of organisations that contain less than 70 per cent of physical infrastructure activities, such as construction of rural roads, wells and preschools, will not receive its approval, which may be an indication of the district’s needs. During the period of the war, the Mullaitivu district suffered great devastation. However, not all NGOs are service delivery ones which engage in infrastructure development. Through their soft skills trainings NGOs, not only in Sri Lanka, but worldwide, seek to create awareness in the general population of their rights and responsibilities in relation to one another, the state and the larger community. In this Independence Day message, president Gotabaya Rajapaksa reaffirmed the government’s commitment to basic democratic values and to the rights of all citizens by saying ‘We will always ensure their right to think freely, hold independent opinions, and express themselves without any hindrance. We will always respect the right of any citizen to follow the religion of his or her choice. Every citizen has the right of free association and of free assembly.’ He went on to say ‘We consider all these as rights of human beings that no one can challenge.’
In Geneva, at the UN Human Rights Council session, foreign minister Dinesh Gunawardena stated that ‘the government will also address other outstanding concerns and introduce institutional reforms where necessary, in a manner consistent with Sri Lanka’s commitments, including the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. We will implement policies rooted in the Government’s commitment to the people by advancing individual and collective rights and protections under the law, ensuring justice and reconciliation and addressing the concerns of vulnerable sections of society.’ These assertions are important and need to be followed on for the good of the country and its people in the manner they are being asserted.
DESPITE the challenges that Sri Lanka faces, visiting international delegations continue to see the positive aspects of the country. Indeed, in a global context in which there is a general retreat from the values that inspired the formation of the United Nations, Sri Lanka continues to remain the South Asian country in which civil society has the most amount of space for work in the areas of human rights and peace-building. Despite the dark clouds that are gathering on the horizon, Sri Lanka continues to remain a country that can provide a positive example of solving intractable political and nationality conflicts while preserving the basic human freedoms, duties and responsibilities that the larger humanity itself must strive for.
Unfortunately, the way power politics works in the world, both between countries and within countries, is that the rules that ought to apply to all are not applied to the powerful. Those who are powerful can and probably will subvert the law to get their own way. This is not the way it should be. The ideal was spelt out in the beginnings of human civilisation that the world is one family to the wise, so that there is no foreigner and citizen where it concerns the dharmic law. The LLRC in Sri Lanka also stated that the rule of law and not the rule of men should prevail. It is the responsibility of enlightened citizens whether in the US or in Sri Lanka to insist that their governments are kept under pressure and kept in check to look after the well-being of all as indeed Mahatma Gandhi aspired for India, and was assassinated while trying to realise his vision.
The US denial of accountability for war crimes in Afghanistan and its rejection of the International Criminal Court are in regard to a foreign population. Therefore, there is less internal pressure on the US government to take responsibility for the destruction in Afghanistan. This is not the case in Sri Lanka where the victims of the war on all sides were Sri Lankan citizens. Therefore, the Sri Lankan government is duty bound to show a higher level of care to its own citizens and ought not to take the US as its example. At least in regard to comforting and compensating the victims, the Sri Lankan government is duty bound to meet a higher standard of accountability and ought not to disclaim responsibility for what happened during the three decades long war to its citizens.
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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