By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Feb 29, 2012 (IPS) – Strung across the main road leading away from the international airport is a banner that has an intriguing message: ‘USA, Pls Do Not Support Terrorism’.
Most of the other large billboards and banners on the same stretch are also directed at visiting tourists, but these are less political and exhort them to visit beach locations or buy jewellery.
The banner is part of a government campaign to thwart or at least discredit a United States-led resolution to be tabled at the ongoing session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) that began in Geneva on Monday.
The resolution calls on the Sri Lankan government to detail how it plans to act on the recommendations made by its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), according to U.S. assistant secretary of state for south and central Asia Robert Blake.
The LLRC was set up in May 2010 by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to inquire into the civil war and related events between 2002 and May 2009, when the conflict finally ended. It presented its final report in November 2011.
The Sri Lankan government has steadfastly rejected international intervention into the conduct of the final phase of the war, despite mounting allegations of rights abuses. So far, it has successfully resisted all attempts to bring on international scrutiny.
In May 2009, as the war was ending and government troops were mopping up the remnants of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Sri Lankan diplomats in Geneva were able to quash a resolution at the UNHRC calling for an international inquiry.
The South Asian nation, backed by India, China and Russia, was then able to get passed a counter-resolution hailing the victory of government forces.
Since then, however, the diplomatic atmosphere in Geneva has changed. Colombo appears shaken by the impending resolution, with high-ranking government officials publicly dubbing the move by the U.S. as intrusive intimidation.
“President Rajapaksa had challenged the conflict management theory introduced by some Western countries. They have named Sri Lanka a country engaged in human rights violations,” youth affairs minister Dullas Alahapperuma told media a day before the Geneva sessions were to start.
“At a moment when they should be supporting Sri Lanka’s revival, they are trying to impose their will on us,” Alahapperuma complained.
Mahinda Samarasinghe, minister and leader of the Sri Lankan delegation at Geneva, said as the sessions began: “We are of the view that this (resolution) could be perceived as undue interference with internal processes of recovery and reconciliation containing strong elements of prejudgement and the application of double standards.”
The government, Samarasinghe said, had in fact begun to implement some of the LLRC recommendations. He was referring to the army and the navy setting up internal inquiries to ascertain whether there were any rights abuses.
Separately, the attorney-general’s department too has begun interviewing some of those who gave evidence at the LLRC.
However, rights activists say that the government needs to show a consistent intent that it is serious about carrying through the LLRC recommendations, rather than reacting when calls for international scrutiny are heard.
“It has to set up an apex body, with possibly the president at the head, to carry out the recommendations. Then it would be clear that the intent is there,” Jehan Perera, executive director of the Colombo-based advocacy body, the National Peace Council, told IPS.
Perera believes that despite the criticism, the final report of the LLRC does give the government a vital entry point into national reconciliation after three decades of civil war. “It is a very important document, one that gives a lot of opportunities.”
Other activists say that widespread protests – some 150 were held in various parts of the country on Feb. 27, mostly organised by ruling party legislators – were unlikely to create any kind of pressure in Geneva.
“I don’t think protests here will change anything in Geneva. Any resolution in Geneva is usually negotiated for several months and weeks,” Ruki Fernando, head of the human rights in conflict programme at the advocacy body, Law and Society Trust, told IPS.
Fernando felt that the government was trying to drum up support by harping on charges of a foreign conspiracy against an independent leadership.
“I think it’s misleading to call this a resolution against Sri Lanka,” said Fernando. “How can a resolution that calls for the implementation of our own LLRC’s recommendations, dealing with accountability issues that the LLRC couldn’t address and having an action plan and road map with specific timelines be against Sri Lanka?”
No official version of the resolution has been made available, but leaked drafts indicate that it will call for the implementation of the LLRC recommendations.
In August 2011, the government acknowledged for the first time, in a report, that there were civilian casualties in the final phase of the war, but did not give any numbers.
The report was released soon after a U.N. experts panel spoke of tens of thousands of people having been killed in the last months of the war and deliberate shelling of civilians.