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Wall Street Journal calls on 'leaders abroad to tread carefully' on SG's Panel report on Sri Lanka

Apr 27, 2011 1:13:33 PM- transcurrents.com
Focus on fixing the democracy before investigating the past, as "there's a real danger that an international war-crimes investigation would do more harm than good", Wall Street Journal says in an Editorial, April 27, 2011:

Sri Lanka and human rights activists around the world are in an uproar over a report released by a United Nations panel this week on the final months of the island nation's bloody civil war. The survey may prove illuminating, so far as it goes, in terms of understanding what happened during those violent six months in 2009. The greater risk is that the international response will tip Sri Lanka closer to losing the peace.

Colombo's final military push through the Northern Province between January and June 2009 displaced hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians. As the fighting neared its conclusion, the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam used thousands of civilians as human shields to try to thwart the army's advance. A three-man panel assembled by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has investigated allegations of atrocities at that time. The bulk of the U.N. report concerns charges that the government didn't do enough to avoid killing civilians and may even have targeted them.

These are serious allegations that deserve an airing. It's hard to see how Sri Lanka can build a stable multi-ethnic society as long as members of its Tamil minority believe they were victims of crimes that have been shoved under a carpet.

But that is where the U.N. and other international parties are in danger of running off the rails. The report calls for a more formal U.N. investigation, perhaps culminating in a war crimes tribunal. That call has been echoed by various human rights groups and may find a sympathetic hearing among some governments. It could prove to be the wrong approach for Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka's problem is not a lack of interest in getting at the truth of the war's final days. On the contrary, opposition presidential candidate and one-time war hero Gen. Sarath Fonseka made waves during his campaign last year by suggesting a willingness to blow the lid on alleged human-rights abuses while he was head of the war effort. Courageous journalists have tried to write about those events, too. Whether politically or morally motivated, such public discussion will be critical moving forward.

Tamil civilians fled the war zone in northern Sri Lanka in April 2009. Rather, the problem is the measures President Mahinda Rajapaksa has taken to stifle that discussion. Gen. Fonseka was arrested and court-martialed after he lost the election. Journalists have repeatedly come under attack, including one war critic, Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was killed by unknown assailants as the final offensive ramped up in 2009.

Cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, also a critic of the government, has been missing for nearly a year and a half. Earlier this year, the offices of opposition news website Lanka eNews were burned in an apparent arson attack, and its editor Bennette Rupasinghe was briefly jailed on questionable charges late last month before being let out on bail.

Against this backdrop, there's a real danger that an international war-crimes investigation would do more harm than good. The "international community" already is deeply discredited in many Sri Lankan eyes for its failure to stand against the neo-Marxist Tigers as they waged bloody battle on Sinhalese and Tamil civilians alike. As the war neared its conclusion, foreign powers criticized the military effort without ever offering a plausible alternative.

For the U.N. or some other institution to launch a formal tribunal now would only allow Mr. Rajapaksa to bolster domestic support among the ethnic majority Sinhalese by playing the nationalism card. His government already is trying to dismiss this week's U.N. report on exactly those grounds, suggesting the process has been unfair and politicized. Given the U.N.'s track record, it will be easy for Mr. Rajapaksa's supporters to credit such arguments, undermining his domestic opposition.

The international community would do better to focus on building the institutions that will eventually allow Sri Lankans to grapple with their own war history. That might mean, for now, focusing less on the end of the war and more on issues such as demanding greater press freedom and a more open political process.

Leaders could also press Colombo to revisit last year's constitutional amendment eliminating presidential term limits, which cleared the way for Mr. Rajapaksa to entrench himself in power. The U.N. report raises such issues, but the report's focus on war crimes has distracted from these points. These issues don't cut across nationalist lines and could lead to a more stable Sri Lanka with more justice for all of its citizens.

Sri Lanka is at a critical moment as it emerges from a decades-long war and rebuilds its politics and economy. There are worrying signs the Rajapaksa government already is heading in the wrong direction. That makes it even more important for leaders abroad to tread carefully, lest they inadvertently push the country back into sectarian strife. (courtesy: Wall Street Journal)