NEITHER Sri Lanka’s government, nor the United Nations seems ready to back down over an increasingly bitter dispute. This week a spokesman for Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, confirmed that a panel of three experts will be convened as planned to advise him on “accountability” for war crimes that were allegedly committed as Sri Lanka brought its civil war to a bloody end early in 2009.
This is despite a fierce demonstration in front of the UN compound in Colombo, the capital, spearheaded by Sri Lanka’s housing minister, Wimal Weerawansa. He had called for a protest against Mr Ban’s experts. The government had earlier dismissed the panel as an interference in its internal affairs, but it also promised that such a siege would be avoided.
Nonetheless on July 6th police clashed with a mob, led by Mr Weerawansa, that tried to storm the UN compound. Shouting angry slogans, protesters burned an effigy of Mr Ban, called his advisers “idiots” and trapped some 200 staff, and their visitors. Those caught inside were escorted out by police eight hours later, to jeers.
The protest continued for much of the past week as loudspeakers blared and a black-shirted Mr Weerawansa launched a “fast-unto-death” while lying inside a shed across the road from the compound. He vowed that he would only be prepared to relent if Mr Ban scrapped his panel. The government preserved a curious position: somewhat disassociating itself from Mr Weerawansa, but rejecting his offer of resignation and saying that it would not quell his demonstration.
From New York Mr Ban issued a terse statement grumbling that the Sri Lankan authorities had failed in their duty to prevent disruption to the UN offices and adding that the UN Development Programme regional centre in Colombo would close (it had earlier been marked for scaling down).
In the end the siege was lifted and Mr Weerawansa gave up his fast (after 52 hours) once President Mahinda Rajapaksa paid a visit and offered him a glass of water. The UN has not caved in, but it remains unclear just what Mr Ban’s expert panel will actually do. His office says that it is not a war-crimes investigation but part of an internal process to advise the secretary-general. But if the three outsiders are to do that, they will need to take a view on what really happened in the closing stages of the war. Mr Weerawansa should fatten himself up now while he has the chance.