Led by the United Nations, a growing international chorus is calling for sweeping investigations of Sri Lanka over its conduct at the tail end of its brutal civil war that lasted more than a quarter century. With recent demands within the EU to revoke its trade status if Sri Lanka does not acquiesce to what it considers a biased and faulty effort, the very Western countries that once cheered its war against one of the world’s most vicious terrorist groups are piling on through the political process and threatening to throw the country back into chaos.
Originating as an ethnic clash between the Tamils – emigrants from southern India – and the majority Sinhalese, the Sri Lankan conflict escalated into a full-blown civil war with emergence of the terrorist Tamil Tigers and their demands for the creation of an independent Tamil state. Time magazine described the Tamil Tigers as “one of the most organized, effective, and brutal terrorist groups in the world,” and credited them with invention of the suicide vest, now a staple in the deadly arsenal of global terrorist organizations.
Responsible for more than 200 suicide bombings, and the assassinations of a Sri Lankan president and a former Indian prime minister, the Tamil Tigers were finally defeated in 2009 after a major military offensive by government forces. Now, the very same United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that praised the government following the offensive five years ago and welcomed the end to the conflict is engaged in a politically motivated investigation of alleged war crimes.
The Human Rights Council voted in March to investigate both sides of the conflict for war crimes, relying heavily on unsubstantiated claims included in a 2011 UN report, which claimed without evidence that as many as 40,000 civilians died in the government offensive that finally broke the Tigers and left the nation without a terrorist incident since 2009.
But like its foray with the IPCC into environmental science, the United Nation’s work has been plagued systemically by shoddy methodology and a lack of transparency. It has refused calls to reveal their sources for outside verification and cannot account for apparent contradictions between the 2011 report and their own personnel who previously put the civilian death toll significantly lower.
As best as can be determined from the outside, the UN seems have taken the complaints of a losing side in a conflict as fact and presented them without scrutiny. In fact, it was under then-High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, a South African jurist of Indian Tamil origin, that the Commission engaged — in a complete about-face — before starting the Sri Lankan witch-hunt.
The media has also jumped on the bandwagon with stories of Tamil refugees seeking asylum and claiming abuse by pointing to scarring as evidence of torture at the hands of the Sinhalese government. But in one case carefully examined by medical experts, a UK appellate court found severe scarring to be self-inflicted with the intention of gaining asylum. That landmark case in itself came about because of an uncanny spate of similar claims previously. Fraudulent and masochistic acts of propaganda are the hallmarks of the Tamil Tiger diaspora; the question is whether the Human Rights Council will permit itself to be manipulated.
But the Council has a history of engaging in politically motivated, one-sided attacks while ignoring more serious abuses throughout the world. For instance, since its formation as a replacement to the long discredited Commission on Human Rights in 2006, UNHRC has aimed more resolutions at Israel than all other nations combined, typically without ever mentioning by name the terrorist organization, Hamas, which governs Gaza.
Things got so bad this summer that over 100 members of Congress signed a letter to Commissioner Pillay stating that the UNHRC under her leadership “simply cannot be taken seriously as a human rights organization” because of its selective inquiries into Israel that ignore the terrorist organization liberally lobbing rockets at its civilian population. As Hamas’ deliberate targeting of non-combatants and routine use of human shields mirror tactics of the Tamil Tigers, HRC’s selective focus on Israel raises questions about its overall objectivity in the case of Sri Lanka.
It’s almost a certainty that abuses occurred in the waning months of Sri Lanka’s prolonged civil war. Wars are messy and rarely if ever follow international conventions. That isn’t by any stretch an excuse for war crimes, but it does raise the question of why there is now so much attention – including a new resolution each year since 2012 – on a conflict in which the dust has already settled, and which represents a rare decisive defeat of a brutal terrorist group.
One unpleasant possibility is that the push is aimed at enhancing the political efforts of Tamils seeking greater autonomy through a proposed federalist solution. Some critics also see the UN efforts as unnecessarily opening old wounds and jeopardizing efforts at reconciliation. It may even be worsening the case of civil rights by backing the government into a corner.
Although the situations differ in many respects, it’s hard not to see similarities between Sri Lanka and Israel. Both are democracies long engaged in conflict with separatist groups willing to use terrorist tactics. Unfortunately, the UN may be looking to tilt the scales in the Tamil’s favor much in the way it does for Gaza – by downplaying the wrongs of terrorists while exaggerating the alleged abuses of the democratic government’s fighting them back. Whatever the merits of the Tamil’s proposed plan – its very existence representing a healthy move toward political opposition over violence – so long as the nation’s current, fragile peace remains intact, Sri Lanka’s democratic process should be respected without undue interference by international forces.
Andrew F. Quinlan is the co-founder and president of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity (@cfandp)