United Nations mediation: a warning from recent history
March 07, 2014 00:00 By Kalinga Seneviratne Special
Sri Lanka's move for international peacekeepers to intervene during its civil war is now seen as a monumental mistake by most in the country
Kavi Chongkittavorn recently wrote about the dangers of Thailand asking the UN to mediate in the current crisis (“Thailand must be careful what it wishes for”, Opinion, March 3). As someone from Sri Lanka – whose Buddhist culture is closely related to Thailand’s – I suggest that Thailand look closely at Sri Lanka’s experience. In the 1990s, then-president Chandrika Kumaratunga permitted Norway and the United Nations to intervene to help solve Sri Lanka’s civil war. That move is now widely seen in Sri Lanka as a monumental miscalculation.
You don’t need to go far back into history to learn the lessons. Over the past few days Sri Lanka has been fighting a gigantic battle to stop United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) head Navi Pillay from abusing her power of office to mount a UN investigation into alleged war crimes by the Sri Lankan military when it crushed the terrorist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a final battle in May 2009.
Pillay last month released a report calling for an international investigation into these alleged war crimes. The Sri Lankan government responded by stating that the UN High Commissioner’s recommendations, “reflect the preconceived, politicised and prejudicial agenda which she has relentlessly pursued with regard to Sri Lanka”, and in a 18-page document accused her of giving “scant or no regard to the domestic processes ongoing in Sri Lanka”. The government has also criticised the report for arriving at conclusions in a “selective and arbitrary manner”.
Sri Lanka’s criticism of Pillay is not new. But, commentaries in both mainstream and online media in Sri Lanka indicate a hardening of attitudes in Sri Lanka against her perceived bias and alleged abuse of her power as head of UNHRC. She has had a much easier ride from the international media, which has been sympathetic to most of the propaganda put out by LTTE supporters in the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora over the past 30 years.
Pillay’s report is being officially tabled at the 25th sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva this week, but she refused Sri Lanka’s request that its response be attached as an appendix to the report. The United States has indicated – supported by the EU and India – that they may table a resolution at the meeting to establish an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes and human rights violations in Sri Lanka, which the government is sure to reject.
“How many of the bullying countries accusing Sri Lanka of crimes against humanity and war crimes have clean hands or a flawless record?” asks Senaka Weeraratne, a Sri Lankan lawyer and international affairs analyst.
“What we see today in Western-dominated international organisations such as the United Nations, and related bodies such as the UNHRC, ICC and the like are proceedings conducted on an inquisitorial footing, witch hunts aimed at devastating the target country or individual – usually of non-European descent – and thereby perverting the course of justice. No quarter is given to the other party until it submits to the political will of the bullying nations” argues Weeraratne. “It is a shameless display of brute power making a mockery of institutional rules and procedure. The targeted country is assumed to be guilty right from the start ruling out any mitigating circumstances. It is virtually a re-enactment of the Inquisition, [but] under the auspices of the United Nations rather than the Catholic Church.”
It is not only Sri Lankans who are complaining about the UNHRC and Pillay’s tactics. Anti-war activists in the West and supporters of the former Libyan regime and that of Syria have also pointed out how these UN agencies, and particularly UNHRC under Pillay, are practising double standards to promote Western imperial designs.
A question often asked by Sri Lankans is why Pillay has not called upon George W Bush, Tony Blair and David Cameron to account for alleged war crimes committed by the US, UK and Nato forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. During her visit to Sri Lanka last year, she said that UNHRC had indeed questioned these countries on certain human rights issues and they had responded. But what Sri Lankan journalist didn’t press her on was why she could not do the same with Sri Lanka, rather than indulging in a public spat and witch-hunt?
Most people in Sri Lanka believe that what she is actually doing is opening up old wounds, an action completely counterproductive to promoting reconciliation between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Nor is it helping to improve human rights in Sri Lanka, where a government that is threatened by what it sees as an international conspiracy for regime change has cracked down heavily on internal dissent and freedom of expression.
It’s not only Pillay whom Sri Lankans are sceptical about. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon is also seen by most in Sri Lanka as lacking neutrality. In 2010, he appointed a panel led by former Indonesian Attorney General Marzuki Darusman to investigate human rights violation in Sri Lanka during the final battle of the war in 2009. The report, based on mainly third-hand sources was critical of both the government and the LTTE, but, since the latter was vanquished in battle, the government stood to be the only accused party called to account. The government heavily criticised the report as being biased.
Though supposed to be an advisory report for Moon’s use only, and not sanctioned by the UN General Assembly, he made it public. Now Pillay has used it extensively in her latest report submitted to the current UNHRC sessions.
“Her findings about the armed conflict in Sri Lanka are based on the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts Report, or the Darusman Report, which is not even a valid UN document,” Sri Lankan presidential spokesman Mohan Samaranayake explained in a media interview this week. “Above all they have not furnished any evidence as regards these war crime allegations so that the government could investigate them in conformity with its justice system.”
“It is our position that it is the government’s primary responsibility to resolve domestic issues. Unwarranted internationalisation of such issues would only undermine the local reconciliation process in Sri Lanka; a process that is still ongoing” warned Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Minister Mohan Samarasinghe, in an address to the UNHRC sessions last year, where the US and its allies pushed through an anti-Sri Lanka resolution.
Referring to that, he argued, “targeting Sri Lanka unfairly in this manner would only serve to further polarise the affected parties, particularly considering that there is no imminent threat to the human security of its citizens or to international peace and security. The bona-fides and the objectivity of the proponents of action on Sri Lanka may, therefore, be questioned”.
As Sri Lanka fights another battle this month at the UNHRC, Weeraratne argues that Pillay’s methods are harming human rights and increasing the credibility gap of UN agencies in the eyes of the international community (which is not just the US, EU and its allies). Instead he argues that the UNHRC should adopt the Japanese model of post-war crisis resolution.
“The Japanese approach advocated by the Buddhist Prince Shotuku to use the method of consensus and dialogue, and not allow the accused party to lose face, is a far more enlightened approach to resolution of complex human rights issues than the ‘ burning at the stake’ inquisitorial approach of the West,” said Weeraratne. “It is the employment of double standards and devious methods to achieve ulterior political ends of powerful Western actors that have resulted in the moral collapse of the UN and related agencies.”
Perhaps, it would be a good idea for Thailand and Sri Lanka to work together in devising a method of resolving political crisis in the 21st century, drawing on their shared Buddhist cultural heritage. Maybe then, we could not only solve our own problems peacefully but also offer the rest of the world a better model of conflict resolution.
Kalinga Seneviratne is a Sri Lanka-born journalist, media analyst and international communications lecturer based in Singapore.