By Ian Paisley
The Sri Lankan Parliament has begun debating the resolution from the UN Human Rights Council urging Sri Lanka to conduct an investigation into alleged war crimes committed during its battle against Tamil Tiger separatists in 2009.
On hearing of the UN passing the resolution the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, immediately hailed the council’s action, saying it “encourages the Government of Sri Lanka to continue on the path toward reconciliation following 27 years of civil war”.
As someone who has grown up in a war-torn country, I have some experience of what it is like to be a citizen in a place where the territory is disputed and where such a dispute brings conflict and eventually conflict resolution.
Sri Lanka has emerged from a long and difficult conflict; now what is important is how it advances as a society today. Undoubtedly part of this will be measured by how willing Sri Lanka is to accept its past and progress to the future.
However, I fear while many will welcome the decision by the UNHRC as a step in the right direction, determination to achieve their objective may well make achieving a lasting peace for the citizens of Sri Lanka less not more likely. The debate in Sri Lanka’s Parliament will be fascinating to follow.
There is a fundamental question for someone such as myself who has seen their community follow a path of reconciliation: Have international governments learnt nothing from building a lasting peace in Northern Ireland?
The resolution passed in Geneva is provocative and effectively commences the internationalisation of the internal politics of Sri Lanka. As we have seen in Africa with similar intervention by another body, the International Criminal Court, this can be destabilising and counterproductive. Such a move, no doubt well intentioned, has the potential to set back the difficult progress that has already been made.
Let me be clear, human rights violations, and allegations of atrocities anywhere, must be openly and transparently addressed by the local government in a manner that builds the confidence by all in that administration. However, there is more than one way to address this and the international community, by now, ought to appreciate the methods which work, achieving lasting settlements, and which escalate tensions, thus creating further hurdles to reconciliation.
The strategy being pursued by the US is in stark contrast to the way administrations under Presidents Clinton and Bush assisted in the process of building a lasting peace process in Northern Ireland. Simply put, bullying did not work. Encouraging, cajoling and charming internal actors to step up to the mark and lead was what proved successful.
Steps that internationalise internal and historic problems – allowing external siren voices to dominate – will not lead to realistic progress in Sri Lanka. Some may point out how US senator George Mitchell was imposed as chairman of the talk’s process in Northern Ireland. But, the subtle fact is the role he played was sought by the sovereign government of the disputed territory.
By contrast the US administration is attempting to force Sri Lanka to accept America’s regulations and “advice and technical assistance on implementing” the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC) report, when the internal Government has already commenced this process.
International governments must know when to push and when to hold back. Nothing sets back progress more than when communities feel they are being pressed by a foreign government to take action that they will take in their own time. I am the first to understand the impatience many feel with progress being made, but impatience should not be a substitute for diplomacy.
In Sri Lanka, a country emerging from 30 years of conflict, a more subtle and tested approach ought to be followed. The UK and USA have good cause to pursue such an approach when they consider what worked for Northern Ireland.
The internal LLRC report made positive recommendations about building a credible reconciliation process that has the potential to build political confidence and judicial independence, thus enabling human rights. It is a step-by-step process that will lead to the necessary confidence to address allegations of military violations of human rights at the end of the conflict. The international community appears to be putting outcomes before process and, as we in Northern Ireland know, the long hard road to peace and reconciliation is process – not a single event.
It amazes me that, after the success of such a process here, the lessons are not always transferred abroad. Unduly rushing the process flirts with a breakdown that will benefit no one.
Patience is required with process politics. Ultimately justice will follow only by a process of evidence gathering, charges, trial, prosecution and punishment. Even in this process victims feel the slowness of progress, but ultimately accept that the wheels of justice turn slow but they turn fine.
I would urge the UK Government to use its not inconsiderable international influence to advocate a patient approach. To refuse to rush in with international declarations and resolutions that will not work, but to promote the model for an international approach based on an experience that did work. Ultimately the path to reconciliation can only be laid by the citizens of that country. The UK should look to plant the seeds of progress by allowing Sri Lanka to take the lead in addressing its own past.
(The writer is DUP Member of Parliament for North Antrim.)