Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Sri Lanka prohibits UN war crimes investigation

By Daniel C Giacopelli | Open Democracy

A panel of UN experts will not be allowed to conduct an independent investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. Instead, the members of the panel will be granted visas to enter the country only if they agree to testify before the ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ (LLRC), the Sri Lankan government’s own state-run committee.

The international panel will not, however, be given permission to travel around the country to meet prisoners, conduct interviews or carry out an independent enquiry: ‘It is only on that basis of giving evidence to the LLRC that the government has consented to their visit,’ said Keheliya Rambukwella, a government spokesperson. ‘The UN panel will be given visas only to testify before the LLRC if they request (that) and not for any investigations....This is the government stance and there is no change in that,’ he added.

It is the latest development in a back-and-forth saga concerning the role a post-war commission in the country, following the violent conclusion in 2009 of the quarter-century fight between Sri Lankan military forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels. Amid widespread claims that both sides perpetrated war crimes, Ban Ki-moon appointed a three-man panel to probe such allegations. The existence and mandate of the international panel, led by the former attorney general of Indonesia, plus a South African and an American, was vehemently opposed by officials in Colombo. In response, President Rajapaksa announced the creation of the government-sponsored LLRC and rejected the admittance of any third-party commission into the country, maintaining that the investigations were a ‘national matter’ and that the UN panel constituted ‘unwarranted interference’ that infringed on Sri Lankan sovereignty. Maintaining the credibility of the LLRC has been difficult for the government, however, as human rights groups around the world continue to point out that the commission lacks the impartiality required to conduct a convincing and effective investigation. Amnesty International, among other groups, has already refused to testify at the LLRC for this reason.

On 18 December, the government changed its position regarding the UN panel, announcing that visas would, in fact, be extended to the three members so that they can share evidence and present their findings with the LLRC, a move praised by the UN Secretary General. Yet it remained uncertain at the time the extent to which the panel would be given appropriate freedom to conduct an effective investigation, or one at all. One reporter in the country suggested that it was ‘unlikely’ that the international team ‘will be given free rein,’ a prediction ultimately confirmed by last Thursday’s announcement that no investigation would be permitted. Explaining the decision, Rambukwella noted that, ‘The circumstances are different now,’ without elaborating.

The openSecurity verdict: It remains uncertain whether the panel will take up the government’s offer to meet with the LLRC, given that no independent investigation will occur. The UN has not yet requested visas for the panel members. The possibility of a meeting outside of Sri Lanka between the LLRC and the UN panel has already been rejected by the LLRC.

One political analyst observes that, ‘There is no point in the UN panel coming here, if it is only allowed to meet only the LLRC and not allowed to meet the civil society and people affected by the war and to travel around the country.’ He notes that while the UN panel was largely created to examine the intensely violent final stage of the campaign, the LLRC has mostly been collecting submissions regarding ‘reconciliation for the future’. Without an independent inquiry, it would be difficult to know for sure the specific details of the damage inflicted in those final days.

Protests such as those from Sri Lankan officials regarding a violation of sovereignty, that supreme and sacred concept within the international system, are common, yet hold precious little moral weight when allegations of war crimes are involved. And indeed, research conducted by Human Rights Watch has shown that it is extremely likely that acts of violence amounting to war crimes occurred in early 2009. Self-preservation is the government's main motive.

Yet, though it remains a highly unlikely scenario, the Sri Lankan government would be wise to allow the UN panel to fulfil its mandate within the country unhindered. It is important to note that the violence that emerged over the course of the 26-year old war was far from one-sided. As observed by Meenakshi Ganguly, despite the reportedly thousands of civilian deaths caused by government military forces, the hundreds of thousands of innocent Tamils held in detention camps and other alleged human rights abuses inflicted upon many in the Tamil community, ‘It is hard to mourn the passing of a group that pioneered suicide-bombings, murdered Tamils who opposed Tiger tactics, and ran a near-totalitarian state-within-a-state. The evil of the Tiger leadership was never more evident than in the final days of the conflict when Tiger forces shot Tamil civilians attempting to flee the fighting and heavy government shelling’.

Only by setting the record straight and shining light on the abuses originating from both sides will President Rajapaksa validate his post-war commitment, signed by himself and Ban Ki-moon, to ‘the promotion and protection of human rights, in keeping with international human rights standards and Sri Lanka’s international obligations’. And if concepts of justice and fairness are not attractive, surely financial incentives are. According to one estimate, Rajapaksa’s refusal to allow an impartial investigation has cost Sri Lanka $150 million (97 million pounds) in annual trade from the European Union and has been quite harmful for foreign investment.

© Open Democracy

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