Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sri Lanka challenges post-war human rights probe

By Thalif Deen | Inter Press Service

When Sri Lanka's External Affairs Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris was at the United Nations last month, he challenged human rights groups to appear before a government-appointed 'Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission' (LLRC) probing human rights violations during the country's civil war.

"We have asked international groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group to come to Sri Lanka and share their insights," he told IPS.

"We are not shutting out anybody. And we have nothing to sweep under the carpet," he said.

All three organisations have accused both the Sri Lankan armed forces and the rebel group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), of war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law - particularly during the final stages of the conflict last year.

The two-decade-old conflict ended with the defeat of the LTTE in one of the world's longest-running insurgencies.

But on Thursday the three groups declined Peiris's invitation and instead called for "an international inquiry into the evidence of war crimes and other abuses during the civil war".

Madhu Malhotra, Amnesty's deputy director for the Asia- Pacific region, said her organisation would welcome the opportunity to appear before a "credible commission of inquiry aimed at securing accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka".

"We believe effective domestic inquiries are essential to human rights protection and accountability. But the LLRC falls far short of what is required," she added.

In an address to the Asia Society of New York, Peiris said it was wrong to challenge the credibility of the LLRC even before it came out with its findings.

Answering questions about war crimes charges as reported in the newspapers, he said the same newspapers had made far, far more serious allegations against other countries - which he refused to single out by name although it was an implicit reference to the United States.

"Isn't all of this very, very horrendously selective? Are these allegations out there only against Sri Lanka?" he asked.

In relation to other countries, he noted, there were much more vivid and graphic allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes charges.

"But why isn't there the same line of questioning and the same intensity"?, he asked.

If there are serious allegations, then surely it is part of the cultural ethos of the United Nations, as reflected in the charter, that countries be allowed to deal with their own problems.

"You don't take over somebody's else's problems in a sort of condescending and patronising spirit on the assumption that they cannot handle their own problems and you must do it for them," he said.

That is contrary to the spirit of the U.N. charter. "Give the countries a chance to deal with their own problems," said Peiris, a former Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

"If somebody makes an allegation couched in language that is as vague as anything could conceivably be, and the person making the allegation is refusing to be absolutely specific - and if that is the basis for triggering processes of this magnitude, the consequences are going to be profoundly dangerous not only for little Sri Lanka but also to the rest of the world," he declared.

Asked about the protection of witnesses giving evidence, Peiris said there is no objection to the principle of witness protection. But he said there is also provision for evidence to be provided in confidence.

In a joint letter Thursday, the three rights organisations said they would not appear before the commission because "it did not meet international standards for independent and impartial inquiries".

Like its predecessor body, which was also appointed by the Sri Lankan government last year, the LLRC exists against a backdrop of continuing government failure to address accountability and continuing human rights abuses, the letter added.

Amnesty's Malhotra said the LLRC's mandate, its composition, its procedures, and the human rights environment in which it is operating all conspire to make a safe and satisfactory outcome for victims of human rights violations and their families extremely unlikely.

She said Amnesty is particularly concerned about the lack of any provisions for witness protection and the fact that former officials who have publicly defended the Sri Lankan government against allegations of war crimes serve on the commission.

Meanwhile, a three-member U.N. Panel of Inquiry, currently in session, is expected to advise Secretary-General Ban Ki- moon on what steps he should take to probe the charges in post-war Sri Lanka.

But Peiris told IPS he was confident the secretary-general has no plans to ask the U.N. Panel to probe any allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka.

"The secretary-general made it very clear he was not attempting to do that," he said.

The three-member Panel, which has a four-month time-frame to report back to Ban, has no investigative powers nor is it mandated to probe allegations, he added.

Peiris also expressed confidence that neither the General Assembly, the Security Council nor the Human Rights Council will authorise any such action against Sri Lanka.

"Absolutely not," he said.


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