At the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Sri Lankan and U.S. governments are facing off this week over a resolution that the U.S. has proposed but neither side wanted. Sri Lanka’s response to the events at the end of its toxic war — the subject of that resolution — has become the driving issue in Sri Lanka’s relations with the United States. The resolution may not have much impact on the reconciliation process that is so critical for Sri Lanka’s future. For the sake of Sri Lanka, the region and indeed Washington, it is important that reconciliation actually takes place.
Human rights have had a high profile in U.S.-Sri Lankan relations for at least three decades. Only since the end of the long civil war in 2009, however, have human rights and war crimes issues come to dominate the relationship. The problem started out as an entirely predictable emotional disconnect between the two countries. Sri Lanka’s victory was won in the face of the scepticism of most of its international friends, and in the teeth of its aid donors’ urging not to seek a military solution to its ethnic problems. After defeating one of the world’s nastiest terrorist organisations, Sri Lanka expected congratulations. Instead, those aid donors, while welcoming the end of the war, put their post-war emphasis on preventing a humanitarian catastrophe and on human rights. Europe and the U.S. reacted to Sri Lanka’s declaration of victory by calling for disbanding the camps where displaced Tamils were living in misery. The demands for accountability became more insistent, and from Sri Lanka’s perspective more threatening, with the release of information suggesting that Sri Lanka might have committed war crimes in those terrible final days, notably the British Channel 4 news film, replayed in recent days and highly controversial in Sri Lanka.