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Coping with Hillary Clinton’s allegations October 19, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , trackback

Jehan Perera

Hillary Clinton’s inclusion of Sri Lanka in the short list of countries that are alleged to have used rape as a tactic of war has caused fury and distress in the country. Understandably, the Sri Lankan government has called upon Ms Clinton to withdraw her remarks, which were extreme and provocative. As a result of these charges and counter charges, the possibility of constructive engagement between the government and the international community that will be in the best interests of the Sri Lankan people may get further diminished.

The fact that Ms Clinton made this allegation as US Secretary of State while presiding over a session of the UN Security Council, and passing a resolution against sexual violence on women during armed conflicts at the world’s most powerful decision making body, highlights the seriousness of the challenge that Sri Lanka faces. This month the US Congress is expected to receive a preliminary report from US government investigators regarding human rights violations and war crimes that may have taken place in the last several years. This month the European Union is also expected to announce its decision regarding the extension of the GSP+ tariff concession, where the main criterion for extension will be Sri Lanka’s adherence to the norms and practices of international law.

Never before has Sri Lanka been confronted with such international pressure. In the long years of Sri Lanka’s three decade long war there were many accusations levelled against the Sri Lankan government, but not this one. There is no denying that rape has occurred in the course of the war. The judicial verdict in the Krishanthi Kumaraswamy rape case 1998 and Sri Lankan media reports of rapes elsewhere bears this out. But these have been acts of individuals and not state policy that is systematically intended to strike fear into the hearts of the civilian population to make it easier to win the war.

With the government on the defensive, President Mahinda Rajapaksa now regularly refers to the possibility of war crimes charges and has firmly resolved not to let any soldier or member of his government to be left unprotected. The government is also making a determined effort to overcome the threats against it sending its most capable ministers and officials on diplomatic lobbying forays over the world. The question that arises is whether these efforts by themselves can be successful in the absence of other efforts.

In a legal judgment that helped to shape US law on freedom of thought and expression, which is one of the most protected rights in that country, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” If something is not true, it is only by examining it openly that it can be shown to be false. At that point of open inquiry those who wish to prove the falsity of a charge will be better positioned to do so, rather than to let the matter fester in secrecy. The very avoidance of an issue serves as a tacit acknowledgement that it might be true.

At the present time, the government is implementing an unprecedented restrictive policy towards the international community in terms of controlling information about the war and its consequences. Entry into the welfare centres where the displaced people are being kept is restricted to approved organisations only, with even the International Committee of the Red Cross not being permitted into the biggest camps in the north. Those organisations that are given access to the welfare camps are under strict instructions not to divulge information. As a result the information that inevitably does get out is not subject to verification, and may very well be exaggerated, with no credible independent evidence available.

Unfortunately it appears that the government is not prepared to be transparent about what it plans to do and what it is in fact doing on the ground. This restrictive attitude came into play especially strongly in the last phases of the war, when the government had to bear heavy human and economic costs in order to defeat the LTTE in military battle. The government ordered the international community, including humanitarian and UN workers out of the war zones, and did not permit the international media with access to those areas except of government-organised tours. The problem is that what was acceptable in a time of war is not acceptable in a time when the war has come to an end. The government’s restrictive policy which may have been effective and justifiable in a time of war has become a liability in the post-war period.

Persons who have access to the welfare camps have told me that there are positive things the government has done which have not reached the public attention as yet. These include the screening of about 150,000 of the approximately 250,000 persons still confined to the welfare camps. This means that these people have been cleared by the military authorities of connections with the LTTE and who ought to be permitted freedom of movement, as in the case of ordinary citizens of the country.

I was also told that the government has finalised its plans to resettle the displaced people. Due to security concerns about 30 percent of them may not be resettled in their original areas. It is better that the government should announce this plan and justify it on security and other grounds, rather than keep it under wraps and give the impression that it has no justifiable plan at all. When there is no transparency the suspicion that things are worse than they are can mount, and so can the suspicions.

The government’s position is that outside investigations are not permissible due to issues of national sovereignty and dignity. Other countries in times of war also do not usually permit outside parties to investigate their battlefield and counter terror practices. In the current environment of polarisation, there must be stronger efforts to promote constructive engagement between the government and outside parties in which there is an information flow in which misunderstandings or different understandings are clarified and harsh judgments are not made on the basis of partial information.

In order to change the international community’s impression of itself in a positive direction, the government needs to adopt a more open and transparent approach to the past and present. The truth about what happened cannot be hidden indefinitely, but it can be explained and justified. Other countries at war, not least the United States, have also gone through similar wars in which worse things happened.

If the government wishes the people of Sri Lanka, especially its working people, to have the benefits of the GSP+ tariff concession, it needs to show the EU that the human rights conditions within Sri Lanka do comply with the EU’s requirements for the granting of that concession. This cannot be done by mere lobbying or speechmaking, even by the most capable members of the government cabinet. What the government has done for the country and people after the war needs to be shown on the ground.

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