Sri Lanka in the Dock

Two days ago the streets of the capital of Sri Lanka, Colombo, played host to a thundering parade of military hardware, as the Government of President Mahindra Rajapaksa celebrated the first anniversary of the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels. The conflict, which has estimated to have killed more than 80,000 people ended last year, when Government forces finally crushed the rebels who had fought for a separate state for ethnic minority Tamils after decades of discrimination by the majority Sinhalese.

With thousands of troops, helicopters and navy gunship patrolling the harbour, the President dismissed claims of war crimes by his Government. “Not a single bullet was fired at civilians from your weapons” he told cheering crowds. Yet the United Nations appears not to agree with Mr President. It says 7,000 civilians died in the last five months of the conflict, with Government troops accused of shelling a small strip of lands where thousands of people were faced by the rebels on one side and the army on the other.

One man who might have expected to have been at the parade was the General who led his forces to victory over the Tamil Tigers, General Sarath Fonseka. But unfortunately for him he is being held in custody facing court martial for allegedly planning to run for the Presidency himself, while still in uniform. For good measure Fonseka also appears to concur with some of the UN’s findings – having infuriated the President whom he seeks to topple by agreeing that the army did indeed shell civilians in those final days.

And now the United Nations is proposing to set up its own independent Commission of Investigation, which will infuriate the Sri Lanka Government further. Not surprisingly perhaps the UN is not exactly convinced that the President’s own internal inquiry into what went on will be quite as unbiased and truthful as the Government claims.

While there is a huge degree of international relief that the vicious civil war is over – for now at least, there does appear to be an international consensus that the deeds of the Sri Lanka Government cannot be over looked. There is a feeling abroad that if the Sri Lankans do not face up to what was done in the name of the State, and if it does not seek to redress the very real grievances of the Tamil minority, the while spiral of conflict will begin all over again.

Which all goes to make the position being taken by the European Union, the biggest donor and assister of Sri Lanka all the more bizarre. A decision whether or not to withdraw special trade dispensations for Sri Lanka was expected to take place in August, with a good deal of pressure from human rights groups, trades unionists and NGOs for the European Union to suspend what is known as GSP+ special status for Sri Lanka. But suddenly the European Union Commission seems to have gone all cold, and the timetable is slipping. In truth key EU Commission officials don’t seem to want to rock the boat, and seem content to accept that limited reforms offered by the Sri Lanka Government are the harbinger for something much bigger.

Judging by President Mahindra Rajapaska’s speech to his troops, there is not only an unwillingness to confront the real truth, but anyone who dares try and speak it potentially faces a term of imprisonment.

Those who might accuse the United Nations of being toothless and frequently failing to act in other parts of the World might like to look at the Sri Lanka experience, and ask themselves whether this time it is Europe that is planning to turn a blind eye to humanitarian abuses on the island whose name is a literal translation of ‘Island of Splendour’.

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