After last month’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting prompted fresh calls for war crimes investiations, Sri Lanka has ramped up its diplomatic PR drive by announcing the release of a National Plan of Action for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights. The only problem is that nobody seems to have seen it.
Minister for Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe announced on 6 October that the Cabinet had adopted a five-year plan addressing issues including the prevention of torture. Sri Lanka pledged to produce the plan in 2008, when the country was reviewed by states under the UN Human Rights Council’s peer-review process. Samarasinghe said that all government ministries had been tasked with implementing the plan, which is to take effect immediately.
However, information received by the Sri Lanka Campaign suggests that the Cabinet may have initially rejected the plan and asked for it to be watered down. Attempts by the Campaign to establish its contents or speak to someone who has read it have so far proved unsuccessful. Given that the plan was initially announced by Samarasinghe at the UN in September, why has nobody seen it?
The plan bears the hallmark of a government smokescreen: a grand but hollow announcement aimed at pacifying critics. Over the past 12 months, the Sri Lankan government has repeatedly come under fire, as evidence pointing to war crimes mounts. 2010 saw a a flurry of damaging reports issued by NGOs including the International Crisis Group, Asian Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International. Towards the end of that year, British TV station Channel 4 released footage allegedly showing government soldiers executing civilians in the final months of the civil war. In April 2011, a UN panel of experts called for an independent investigation into these allegations. A month later, Channel 4 screened ‘Sri Lanka Killing Fields’, a documentary featuring further footage, at the UN. The film was also broadcast on television in the UK, US and India. In August, the UN Secretary-General officially forwarded his panel’s report to the Human Rights Council. At the Council’s autumn session, Canada belatedly withdrew an attempt to raise concerns over Sri Lanka after it became clear that Council members such as China would block action.
The lead up to October’s Commonwealth summit was peppered with lawsuits filed in the US and Australia against the Sri Lankan president and other high-ranking officials. At the summit itself, Canadian Prime Minister Harper reportedly walked out when the Sri Lankan president was invited to speak. Sri Lanka’s failure to address war crimes allegations split Commonwealth leaders, with Sri Lanka forced to call on countries like India to ensure that its bid to host the next summit in 2013 was accepted. The Commonwealth had previously postponed this decision in light of the allegations. Harper has said that he would boycott the 2013 meeting if human rights abuses were not investigated.
This sustained pressure has deflated Sri Lanka’s post-war arrogance. Earlier this year, it abandoned its ridiculous claim that not a single civilian had died at the hands of the army in 2009. It later released ‘Lies Agreed Upon’, a crass and often farcical propaganda film that seeks to rebut ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ (it even mimics its style). It then ended months of prevarication by announcing that its Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) would release its report on 15 November. The Commission has been widely dismissed as partisan and toothless.
The National Plan of Action is the latest move in this PR offensive. According to the BBC, “the government said [the plan] would largely involve setting up committees to monitor implementation of existing laws and to ensure better understanding and respect for civil rights”. The independence of such committees has repeatedly been called into question. Last year, a constitutional amendment gave the president more power over appointments to state commissions, the police and judiciary, easing the deployment of key military personnel to high-level posts. (This is occurring against a backdrop of militarisation, which has seen the armed forces become involved in areas such as development, agriculture, tourism and welfare. The army and navy are even taking over the maintenance of two cricket stadiums.)
Like the LLRC, announced by the government in 2009 as further details of its brutal war conduct emerged, the National Plan is a ruse and a familiar one at that. None of Sri Lanka’s plentiful past inquiries and initiatives have produced meaningful outcomes. This is yet another attempt at deflection by an increasingly embattled regime.