Throughout March, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) will be reviewing the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, among other countries, at it meeting in Geneva.
At last year’s session, the UNHRC passed a resolution calling on the Sri Lankan government to “conduct an independent and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law”.
Given that the government is the main human rights abuser in Sri Lanka, this amounted to a call for the government to investigate itself. The government ignored the resolution, denying its forces had committed any human rights violations.
It is expected that this year, the United States will move a resolution to establish an “independent international accountability mechanism to evaluate reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations committed by both sides during and after the war in Sri Lanka”.
The US and allies such as Britain and Israel strongly supported the Sri Lankan government in its war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The LTTE were fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island.
The US and Israel supplied military aid that was crucial to the government's eventual victory in 2009. So why is the US now proposing an investigation of war crimes?
In part, it is due to the work of the Tamil diaspora in bringing the issue of war crimes and ongoing human rights violations to the attention of people globally. This puts pressure on Western governments to appear to act.
But the US also has its own reasons for raising the issue. There are indications the US would like to pressure Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to change certain policies or perhaps even replace him.
The US appears to view Rajapaksa’s aggressive anti-Tamil policies as counterproductive, and thinks a less confrontational approach is wiser.
The US may also be unhappy that Rajapaksa is trying to balance between China and the US. It would prefer Sri Lanka clearly back the US in the rivalry for influence in the Indian Ocean region.
US Ambassador at large for Global Criminal Justice Stephen Rapp recently visited a site where hundreds of Tamils were massacred by the Sri Lankan army in 2009. This visit prompted complaints from the Sri Lankan government and a protest by several hundred Rajapaksa supporters outside the US embassy in Colombo.
The Australian Senate has passed a motion calling on the Australian government to support the US resolution at the UNHRC. However, the February 24 Melbourne Age said the Australian government is working to “actively undermine” the push for an international enquiry.
The reason for this rare example of Australia opposing US policy is that the Australian government wants Rajapaksa’s help in stopping asylum seekers fleeing Sri Lanka and seeking refuge in Australia.
The Australian Tamil Congress has welcomed the Senate vote. However, support for the US resolution is not unanimous among Tamils.
The Tamilnet website has said that by talking about “human rights violations committed by both sides”, the US resolution avoids recognising the genocide committed by the Sri Lankan government against the Tamil people, and will do nothing to prevent the ongoing genocide.