by Fred Carver, Independent Policy Digest, Washington, August 9, 2014
To many external observers the Government of Sri Lanka appeared to lose the plot somewhat during the recent UN Human Rights Council (HRC) session. A series of overt and heavy handed attempts to silence dissent, even as the session was discussing a resolution censuring Sri Lanka, appeared to illustrate precisely the point that Sri Lanka’s critics were making and guarantee the passing of a resolution calling for an international investigation in to war crimes committed in Sri Lanka.
However, it is my view that these actions were not simply strategic errors on the part of the government, nor evidence of their indifference or imperviousness to the impact they were having in Geneva. Instead, the Government of Sri Lanka’s actions should be considered as a deliberate part of a long-term strategic plan. These actions gained them considerable ground in their long term objectives of pacifying the Tamil majority areas of Sri Lanka by force, silencing internal dissent, and building a lasting regime with the Rajapaksa family at its apex – in return for which, the loss of the HRC resolution was considered a price worth paying.
My thesis is that the Government of Sri Lanka, or sections within the ruling family, conceded that the resolution could not be prevented but nevertheless felt that the success of the resolution was damaging their interests. They therefore set out to ensure that it could never happen again, and that the potential positive impacts of the resolution would be negated.
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Analysis: Why this Happened
In March the Human Rights Council finally voted to establish an
independent international investigation into war crimes and crimes against
humanity committed between 2002 and 2011. It had been obvious to many
outside observers for some weeks that this was the most probable outcome.
Thus, while the Government of Sri Lanka’s actions certainly did nothing to
support their case, they will have been aware by mid Febuary that the battle
was in any case lost.
But this state of affairs, with a concerned and committed Human Rights
Council determined to pass such a resolution, did not occur overnight. It
marked the culmination of a five year process, a process that started from
the least promising of all possible positions: with the Human Rights Council
passing a motion lauding Sri Lanka for its conduct during the war. It will
have not escaped the Government of Sri Lanka’s attention that the main
cause of this change was the steady stream of detailed and accurate
information available to Human Rights Council members as to the current
human rights situation in the north of the island and shedding further light
on the events of 2009; thus demonstrating the effects of the culture of
impunity engendered by Sri Lanka’s lack of accountability, and the failure of
domestic reconciliation initiatives.
The Government of Sri Lanka has proven itself incredibly brutal in its past
attempts to crush dissenting aspects of civil society. In 2009 and 2010 14
media workers were killed, and over 50 were chased into exile , and
potentially thousands of Tamil civilians were disappeared . The
consequence was a culture of fear and self-censorship which allowed the
Government of Sri Lanka to continue to keep dissent within acceptable
limits without the need for as many highly visible violations of this kind.
However, as Sri Lankan civil society had clearly now recovered to the point
where it could start to cause problems for the Government’s careful process
of reputation management, a new approach was needed which would silence
the Government’s critics without causing unacceptable levels of
Broadly speaking information flowed to the Human Rights Council as
This is of course a simplification, but it serves to illustrate the primary
mechanisms through which the majority of information is collected and
disseminated. This process is of course entirely legal, and is indeed a vital
aspect of the healthy functioning of any civil society in the world.
Nevertheless it represented a significant threat to the Government of Sri
Lanka’s ability to perform human rights violations in the Tamil majority
areas of Sri Lanka without detection by the Human Rights Council.
Furthermore, while the battle for the Human Rights Council had ultimately
already been decided, one could place the international community, or
indeed the media and thus international public opinion, in the left hand box
of the diagram above. And these things continue to matter to the Sri Lankan
Government, which has consistently demonstrated that, while it may
increasingly act like a rogue state, it is not willing to be treated as one. In
particular the state of international public opinion is likely to be key in
deciding whether the quest for global accountability fritters out after the
Human Rights Council mandated investigation concludes, or if it continues
to the point where it starts to impact the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka
and thus prevents the Sri Lankan Government from continuing to use the
threat of violence as a tool for pacifying Tamil majority areas of Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan Government therefore sets out to prevent the flow of
information, viewing the negative opinion of the Human Rights Council as a
sacrifice worth making. It prevented the flow by a concerted series of actions
designed to target the three places indicated on the diagram.
Part 1: The Government of Sri Lanka continued and stepped up its attempts
to intimidate the public in Tamil majority areas, particularly the Vanni. The
manhunt for “Gobi” was a considerable help in this regard, allowing as it did
for increased roadblocks and house-to-house searches. The spate of arrests,
and their semi-random nature, were also a part of this, as was the
persecution of students at Jaffna University and of Tamil civil society
leaders and politicians.
Above all though the starkest message has been sent by the continued
persecution of Jeyakumari Balendran, and the manner in which the
international community and NGOs have been unwilling or unable to
support her. This has been taken as a message by all those working in the
north, that if they attempt to ask for justice for their family members, or if
they interface in any way with UN processes or the international community,
then the Government of Sri Lanka will persecute them and the international
community will not protect them.
Part 2: Sri Lankan civil society is incredibly diverse, and it can be
dangerous to generalise about it. However it is true that there is something
of a divide within Sri Lankan civil society between two groups. The first is a
group about which one could use several, if not always all, of the following
words: Colombo based, predominantly Sinhalese, English speaking, well
connected to the outside world, poorly connected to the Vanni, has difficulty
conducting fieldwork in the north. Conversely the second group could be
described using several (again not always all) of the following: grassroots,
predominantly Tamil, Tamil speaking, poorly connected to the outside world,
well connected in the Vanni, strong networks in the north. Ruki Fernando
belongs somewhere in between these two groups . In this he is not
unique, but he is unusual. In particular he is highly unusual in that he is a
member of the internationally well-connected Colombo-based civil society
but he conducts extensive periods of fieldwork in the north.
It was for this reason that he was targeted by the Sri Lankan Government,
but even more than his treatment in detention (light by Sri Lankan
standards), a strong message was sent by the manner in which he was
treated upon release. The gagging order, the travel ban, and the attempts to
access his electronic communications were all targeted attacks on Ruki
Fernando’s way of working. The strong suggestion was that the Sri Lankan
Government will not tolerate Colombo civil society conducting fact finding
missions to the Vanni. This message has been taken on board, with a
drastic effect on the flow of information out of northern Sri Lanka.
Part 3: Criminalising Tamil diaspora groups potentially means that anyone
within Sri Lanka risks criminal charges if they converse with anyone who is
a member of any such group. Many of the groups that are listed had a
membership of many thousands of people, including blood relatives of many
people currently living in Sri Lanka. It is incredibly unclear, and the
Government of Sri Lanka has kept it deliberately so, what this will mean for
people living in the north, and what forms of interactions will be tolerated.
But this uncertainty acts as a major disincentive to anyone in northern Sri
Lanka from interfacing in any way with any diaspora group, lest their
actions or intentions be misinterpreted.
Therefore, taken together, these actions have had the effect of casting a veil
over what is happening in the Vanni area of Northern Sri Lanka, with the
consequence that much of the worst excesses of Sri Lankan Government
oppression go unreported. This allows the Sri Lankan Government to eat its
cake and have it, to use oppression to control the Tamil Majority areas of Sri
Lanka without the need for meaningful reconciliation, whilst still avoiding
the consequences that would usually follow from such action.
This strategy appears to be the brainchild of Gotabaya Rajapaksa: the
President’s brother and defence secretary – who personally commands the
agencies involved in all the recent actions. Various actions, in particular the
rapid reversal in policy leading to Ruki Fernando and Fr Praveen Mahesan’s
release, suggest that it is not a universally supported strategy within the Sri
Lankan Government. It is therefore vital that the costs and consequences of
such a policy be increased, and the impacts mitigated, to ensure that both
the strategy, and Gotabaya’s supporters, lose favour within the Government.