For the past week, Sri Lanka's minister for housing and construction, Wimal Weerawansa, has led a group of pro-government protesters that has ringed the U.N.'s Colombo headquarters, harassing U.N. employees, preventing staffers from entering and exiting the U.N. compound, and burning U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in effigy.
The protesters want to pressure Ban to reverse a decision he made last month to set up a panel to advise him on the U.N.'s response to alleged war crimes during Sri Lanka's victorious, but bloody, final offensive against the country's rebel Tamil Tigers. Adopting a little-used tactic of international diplomacy, Weerawansa vowed today to begin a hunger strike until Ban backs down.
Ban initially backed a request last year by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa to carry out his own investigation into alleged war crimes during the conflict. Frustrated with the lack of progress, Ban established a three-member panel in June to advise him on how to ensure accountability for the possible war crimes.
The panel is chaired by Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia, Yasmin Sooka of South Africa, and Steven Ratner, an American lawyer. But Sri Lanka's government has accused Ban of exceeding his authority and refused to provide the panel members with visas to enter the country.
Ban has insisted that the panel will press ahead with its work. Today, he issued a statement saying that Sri Lanka's failure to "prevent the disruption of the normal functioning of the United Nations offices in Colombo was as result of unruly protests organized and led by a cabinet minister of the government" is "unacceptable." Ban recalled the top U.N.'s official in Sri Lanka for consultations in New York and ordered the U.N. office in Colombo shuttered.
But very little was heard from the broader U.N. membership, particularly developing countries like China, Egypt, and India, which have effectively blocked condemnation of Sri Lanka and served as enablers of Colombo's defiant behavior. Last week, Egypt, the chair of the 118-member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), circulated a letter, first published by Inner City Press, calling on Ban to back down from his plan to probe atrocities.
The non-aligned countries expressed "serious concern about the selective targeting of individual countries which it deems contrary to the founding principles of the movement," according to the letter. "In this context, the movement firmly opposed the unilateral evaluation and certification of the conduct of states as a means of exerting pressure on non aligned countries and developing countries."
The statement was scheduled to be adopted on Friday. But some NAM members, including Pakistan and Malaysia, objected to the letter, not because of concerns over Sri Lanka's conduct, but because its message might undermine their efforts to press Ban to carry out an investigation into the Israel's Memorial Day commando raid against a flotilla of aid activists. Egypt has asked Sri Lanka to revise the statement to address those concerns.
The Sri Lankan authorities mounted a massive offensive last year against the country's rebel Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Ealam, a ruthless separatist movement that used tens of thousands of ethnic Tamil civilians to defend its fighters, killing those who sought to flee the war zone. But human rights groups claim that government forces may have killed tens of thousands of unarmed civilians in the course of the conflict, primarily through the indiscriminate bombing of civilian enclaves.
The U.N. membership's response has been particularly mild when compared to their reaction to alleged Israel excesses in Gaza and in the flotilla raid, where Israeli commandos killed nine aid activists that resisted the seizure of their ship. In those cases, the U.N. Human Rights Council, the General Assembly, and the U.N. Security Council have all pressed for independent investigations into alleged Israeli crimes.
But there has been little action on Sri Lanka, where the loss of civilian lives was exponentially higher. Last May, Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged the U.N. Human Rights Council to launch a commission of inquiry to probe potential war crimes by Sri Lanka's government and rebel forces. Instead, the council adopted a statement congratulating Sri Lanka for prosecuting a successful military offensive against the Tamil Tigers. The statement welcomed Sri Lanka's "liberation" of tens of thousands of its citizens that held by rebels "against their will as hostages."
In a recent interview with Turtle Bay, Louise Arbour, the U.N.'s former High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the rights council "completely misapprehended the magnitude of the civilian casualties" in Sri Lanka, urging it to reconsider its position. Arbour, a former U.N. war crimes prosecutor who now heads the International Crisis Group, maintains that at least 30,000 civilians were killed in the final months of Sri Lanka's 2009 offensive against the Tamil Tigers. Most of them, she said, were likely killed as a result of indiscriminate bombing of civilian enclaves by Sri Lanka military forces.
Arbour said Sri Lanka and its supporters have frequently protested that Colombo is the target of unfair political pressure from powerful western governments. But she pointed out that many of the same governments have not hesitated to call for Israeli war crimes probes, citing the Human Rights Council's decision to set up a commission headed by the South African jurist, Richard Goldstone, to probe war crimes during the Gaza.
"They are always complaining about double standards and look at how quickly they acted on Gaza, where according to the Goldstone report, casualties were somewhere in the range of 1,500," Arbour said. "In Sri Lanka, we believe on the basis of evidence we have so far, 30,000 is probably in the right range. So, for the Human Rights Council to have been very quick to launch an investigation in Gaza, which led to a 500 page report, knowing ahead of time that they would not have the cooperation of Israel, you know where the double standards are."
Sri Lanka's charge d'affaires, Bandula Jayasekara, did not respond to a request for comment.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.