COLOMBO: It has become routine to say that today Sri Lanka is more polarized than ever before. For the past two years there has been anxiety within the Muslim community about anti Muslim propaganda and the possibility of targeted violence against them. Now this has found expression in the newly appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein’s inaugural speech to the UN Human Rights Council. He said, “I am alarmed at threats currently being leveled against the human rights community in Sri Lanka, as well as prospective victims and witnesses. I also deplore recent incitement and violence against the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities.” Although the new Human Rights High Commissioner is reputed to be moderate in his views, he appears to be following in the path that has been set by his predecessor in office Navanethem Pillay.

Thus it can be seen that the UN mandated investigation into the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war is going ahead despite the efforts of the government to short circuit it. The government has invested in lobbying in the capitals of several important countries, not least the United States, but with no visible results in halting or derailing the probe. Even the replacement of former UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navanethem Pillay has not had any impact on the probe which continues autonomously. The continuing momentum of the war crimes investigation will be causing anxiety in those in the government who are most likely to be at the receiving end of its strictures, and possible sanctions. The limited success of the government’s present lobbying efforts seems to have prompted a rethinking of the government’s approach to it.

There is little or nothing that the government can do at this time to stop the international investigation from arriving at its own conclusions regarding what happened in the last phase of the war. If the government had acted earlier, and been more active in implementing the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, it might have been able to stop the international investigation from being set up. But now it is too late for that, and the investigation is moving ahead and collecting their information which would likely be damning to the government. However, the government still retains the option of winning back the majority of countries represented on the UN Human Rights Council, just as it did in 2009 when it won the vote.

The failure of the government’s effort to convince the majority of countries in the UN Human Rights Council to side with it since then has been on account of its failure on two counts. The first is to demonstrate in a convincing manner that it is serious about probing human rights violations that took place in the past, and ensuring that the perpetrators are brought to justice, or at least confess and repent, as happened in post-apartheid South Africa. The government’s appointment of military tribunals which have acquitted the military and blamed the LTTE have not been convincing in the eyes of the international community. The second factor that has discredited the government is its failure to find a minimally acceptable political solution, which even the setting up of the Northern Provincial Council has not been able to assuage.

Governments of countries that have been reluctant to vote against Sri Lanka at the UN sessions, most notably India and Japan, have made it known to the government that progress in the area of a political solution and political reconciliation can go far in reducing the general level of international pressures on Sri Lanka. Both these countries, which are enormously influential in the world, have also not asked for radical solutions, but for the implementation of what the government has already promised, most notably to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. It now appears that Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa who in the past was seen as a hardliner on ethnic and national sovereignty issues has decided to take on the challenge of accommodating rather than confronting international pressure. It would be in this context that the Defense Secretary has sought a meeting with the Northern Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran which the latter is mulling over.

Another unexpected development was the meeting that the Defense Secretary had with several leading NGOs. On the positive side, this meeting revealed an opening for a dialogue to commence between the government and NGOs. In recent months relations between the NGOs and government have been extremely strained due to various restrictions placed on their functioning. There have been government circulars that apparently seek to restrict the free space that NGOs have to operate and surveillance of their activities by various intelligence arms of the state, including uniformed soldiers. There have also been government media attacks on the integrity of NGOs and their links with foreign aid agencies. There have also been physical attacks on their meetings at which the police protection has not been forthcoming.

The discussion between the Defense Secretary, Defence Ministry officials and the NGO representatives was cordial and covered the areas of interest of the NGOs that participated in the meeting as well as the concerns and perceptions of NGOs in general. There was a discussion on the issuance of the NGO Secretariat circular on the need for NGOs to work within their mandates and the Finance Ministry advertisement that the general public and government officials should check on the credentials of NGOs prior to working with them. The discussion also extended to the government’s surveillance of NGO activities, the devolution of power, the problem of missing persons and the unwillingness of NGOs to dialogue with the government.

The Defence Secretary explained his position on each of the problems that the NGO representatives brought up. He urged the NGOs present to discuss their problems with the government rather than internationalizing them. He also proposed that the NGO Secretariat’s liaison officers in the District Secretariat’s could be called upon to resolve any problems encountered in the field. The issue of government regulation of NGOs through the NGO Secretariat was also discussed and the need for a regular programme of meetings and consultation between the NGO Secretariat and representatives of NGOs was agreed upon. Particularly important was agreement to bring the Defense Secretary into dialogue with those NGOs that have been strongly critical of government policies in regard to human rights and governance issues.

Although the shift that seems to be taking place in the government can be primarily attributed to finding a way out of the problem with the international community, this shift may have a deeper significance for conflict resolution within Sri Lanka itself. The polarization at the macro level, which is seen in voting patterns in which the ethnic communities vote for different political parties, or where nationalist sections of one community raze the town of another, as at Aluthgama, is not so stark at the community level. At the community level there is coexistence between people of different ethnic and religious identities, which is largely peaceful. The tragedy of Sri Lanka is that its most charismatic political leaders have found it easier to play the role of demagogues who are more adept at mobilizing the fears and narrow ethnic and religious identities of people rather than draw strength and courage from their affinity for universal values that is the way to overcome the divisions of the past, and also to address international concerns.

In the past month I met with community groups, mainly consisting of women, in the Trincomalee and Ampara districts in the East and in the Galle and Hambantota districts of the South. The purpose of these meetings was to hear what women at the community level had to say about the country’s transition from war to peace. This included women affected by war, those whose husbands had been soldiers and were now members of the Ranaviru Sevana, and those who had lost their loved ones in the war. The idea of peace that was discussed at these meetings was not the negative concept of peace which is only the absence of war, but rather the positive concept of peace that is accompanied by a healing of wounds of war.

In all places where our meetings took place the women tended to uphold universal values. When they identified problems they tended to focus on their own problems, which they knew best. But when it came to figuring out solutions having heard all sides they tended to see the solution in ways that would be applicable to all. When asked about how the process of moving from war to peace via truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reforms should take place, they invariably spoke in terms of the equal treatment of all. In Hambantota, a soldier’s widow said, “I came angry with the Tamils. But I have learnt that there were reasons why they joined the LTTE and there is no point to my remaining angry.”

Some of the sentiments expressed at the meetings were: “all must be treated equally and not one must be looked down upon;” “Let all Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslims share their experiences so that we can learn what they went through;” “Those who did wrong must be punished equally in relation to others who committed the same crimes;” “The rebuilding of infrastructure benefits Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims;” and “If there was wrong done, those who did so must be punished regardless of race and religion.” The hope for Sri Lanka would be that even as it strives to find its way to peace with justice for all five years after the war has ended, it will generate a political leadership that has both the confidence and credibility to tap into the idealism and value system of the people at the community level which is the equivalent of international standards. Such a national leadership will be able to engage with the international community on an equal footing.