The UN should be congratulated on setting up an official inquiry into the human rights violations perpetrated by the Sri Lankan government during the country’s civil war. Granted, that inquiry is coming rather late (about five years late), is horribly undermanned (only twelve official staff members), and is restricted to only ten months in which to complete its inquiry. And of course, it will only look at the last years of the civil war in Sri Lanka which ended in 2009, turning a blind eye to all of the ongoing human rights violations in the country today.
While the UN has done a phenomenal job at developing international human rights norms since its inception, it has to see the world clearly to act appropriately. As Bertrand Ramcharan puts it, “idealism without political understanding amounts to amateurism”. The UN needs to understand that conducting an official inquiry that is heavily constrained by a lack of time, resources, scope, and competing political factors is nothing but counterproductive. It fails to address the ongoing issues in Sri Lanka, it will never be fully comprehensive and credible, and it will do little to bring justice to any of those involved in alleged war crimes. What it will do however, is erode the credibility the UN has in dealing with human rights abuses. It will also give the impression that the international community has done what it can, or what it is prepared to do, which sends terrible signals to both victims and perpetrators of the alleged atrocities in the country.
Sri Lanka is a case where the UN should take a more indirect role in investigating the reports of war crimes and human rights abuses by working out of the direct spotlight of the Sri Lankan government until enough evidence is collected to prepare a compelling argument to try individuals in the International Criminal Court. Developing contacts and collecting witness statements takes time and resources, both of which the UN is clearly not willing to provide. What they can provide then is expertise and assistance to local and regional efforts to see justice through. The UN has to understand when it should take the lead and when it should instead coordinate or aid other efforts. In Sri Lanka this decision should be a simple one, especially in light of the fact that the current ruling government will likely refuse to allow the UN inquiry to even enter the country.