Sri Lanka's feud with the UN turns acrimonious

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Colombo


On a leafy Colombo corner, surrounded by hundreds of his nationalist supporters and Buddhist monks, Sri Lankan cabinet minister Wimal Weerawansa burns an effigy of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

Image caption,
Mr Ban is a figure of hate among the protesters

The crowd shouts anti-UN slogans in Sinhala and jeers when cars leave the UN compound.

UN staff say they feel scared and besieged; the world body delivers a strong protest.

The government says the demonstration is peaceful and orders the police to leave.

Would-be hunger strikers lie on a mattress.

What is causing this unusual stand-off and why are Sri Lankan nationalists so angry with the UN?

This battle arises from Ban Ki-Moon's appointment of a three-member international panel to "advise him on accountability issues" relating to allegations of war crimes by both sides in the final stages of the civil conflict.

From the start, plans for the panel angered Colombo.

It denies allegations that it targeted and killed civilians, or shot surrendering Tamil Tigers.

It says Ban Ki-Moon's move is an unwarranted interference in its affairs and says he has no backing from the UN's Security Council or Human Rights Council.

'Excessively politicised'

An anti-UN protester told the BBC he used to see the world body as something which helped his country, but now he felt it was getting excessively politicised.

Image caption,
Tempers have often flared during the protests

Cheered on by a largely supportive media, the government says the UN's action is hypocritical, alleging that no similar attention is paid to civilian deaths caused by Western powers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan - the same powers that it often accuses of hounding it, chiefly the US and Britain.

The constant refrain is that Sri Lanka, a small country, "defeated terrorism" and that the rest of world is jealous as it has not enjoyed similar success.

And the Sri Lankan government says that, like other countries re-examining past deeds, it has set up its own perfectly adequate mechanism, namely the Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation which was announced in May.

The government says this should be given a chance to do its work and was gratified when Hillary Clinton gave it a cautious welcome.


The backdrop is one of strong nationalism in which Colombo stresses its many Asian political allies and deprecates its critics.

Image caption,
The demonstration has been supported by nationalist groups and monks

It is a largely Sinhalese nationalism, not one which appears to have many Tamil or Muslim adherents.

"Why should I worry about others? If India and neighbours are good with me, that is enough for me," President Rajapaksa said last week.

On the other side sit the critics of the Sri Lankan government.

They list allegations that international humanitarian law was breached and say there is enough evidence to warrant an international inquiry.

There must be a process of accountability of Sri Lanka if it is to move forward, they say.

Prominent among them are the head of the UN Human Rights Council, Navi Pillay (although the council itself has refused to censure Colombo), and a UN special rapporteur, Philip Alston.

The top UN leadership points out that a joint statement by Mr Rajapaksa and Mr Ban last year guaranteed that Colombo would take measures to address human rights grievances thrown up by the war.

They say this must be followed through.

Isn't the Commission on Lessons Learnt good enough for that?

Off the record?

International human rights groups including Amnesty International say they doubt its efficacy and point to what they say is a string of failed commissions of inquiry in Sri Lanka's past, going back decades and achieving little or no justice.

Domestic and foreign critics say the mandate of the domestic commission appears to be quite narrow.

Its head this week told BBC Sinhala that it is centred around the failure of the ceasefire which was originally declared in 2002 - it does not appear to cover the controversial closing stages of the war in 2009.

Mr Alston has even thrown the charge of hypocrisy back at Colombo, as the Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN heads a UN committee looking into allegations of Israeli human rights violations.

But the demonstrators at the UN compound are sticking to their line and promising a hunger strike until Ban Ki-Moon withdraws his rights panel.

"If they don't like our own panel, why don't they just ask us to broaden its mandate?" an indignant associate of Mr Weerawansa asked the BBC on Wednesday morning.

In a sense, Mr Weerawansa is following through on the government's own repeatedly stated line.

The authorities seem quite happy with what is going on, at least as long as it does not get further out of hand.

But the UN (to which Sri Lanka, of course, belongs) has made its unhappiness known.

It regards events since Tuesday as excessive already. What it may be saying to the Colombo government off the record is anyone's guess.

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