Sri Lanka: Unanswered Questions
31 May 2012:
Mark Schneider, Senior Vice President and Special Advisor on Latin America, discusses the recent visit to Washington of G. L. Peiris, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, and the pressing questions that the minister left unanswered. 9:59.
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Welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group, I’m Kimberly Abbott. Three years after the bloody end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, many questions remain unanswered concerning credible allegations of war crimes that were committed in the final months of the war. Recently, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister traveled to Washington to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of Congress, as part of what some are saying was a propaganda tour. I’m speaking today with Mark Schneider, Crisis Group’s Senior Vice President about the minister’s trip and what it left to be desired.
Mark, during Foreign Minister Peiris’ trip you were able to speak with him and ask him questions. Tell me what you asked and whether you were satisfied with his answer.
Well, first, I was not satisfied with his answer. And what I asked was, since he made a public statement, the government’s priority was reconciliation. I said that reconciliation, from what everyone knows about post-conflict situations, has to be built on truth and accountability. And there has to be truth about who committed what crimes, and then those who committed crimes, particularly crimes against humanity, and war crimes, had to be held accountable in order to establish the rule of law going forward, and to give some confidence to all groups in the society that there is a justice system in place. And he did not provide an adequate answer.
What did he say?
He basically said that the terrorist group, the LTTE, had been defeated. He denied that there were any indications of crimes against humanity. And I noted that this wasn’t simply the Crisis Group, which had issued a report, as you remember in 2010, that laid out the credible allegations of some ten to forty thousand civilians being killed. It wasn’t just our group. The panel of experts at the United Nations, which was comprised of an Indonesian attorney general, a member of the South African Truth Commission, and a U.S. human rights jurist had reached the same conclusion. And in fact, the U.S. Ambassador for War Crimes, Stephen Rapp, just sent a report to the U.S. Congress in April in which again he laid out the credible allegations of war crimes and the failure of the government of Sri Lanka to institute, in any way, shape, or form, an independent investigation of those allegations or to hold anyone accountable.
So, the purpose of the trip was to talk about how the Sri Lankan government was going to implement some of the recommendations from its own panel, the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission, or the LLRC. Did he do anything of the sort?
What he did was he said that the government had recently established a cabinet committee that would be proposing steps to be taken to implement some of what they call the LLRC, the Lessons Learned Commission. And unfortunately, again, no timetable, no benchmarks, and absolutely nothing with respect to accountability. That’s why the U.S. introduced a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council because the LLRC report had done nothing with respect to accountability for international humanitarian and human rights law obligations of the government.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also pushed him on transparency and making public what the government is doing to implement some of these recommendations. Was there a response to that? And do you have any indication of how, if they are going to actually implement some of these recommendations, how the Sri Lankan population will know about it?
In fact, that was one of the requests made, as you say, by the Secretary of State. And it was one of the issues that was raised at the private session that I participated in with him. And the fact is that he simply almost ignores the issue, saying everyone in Sri Lanka knows what we’re doing. Well in fact, that’s not accurate. And clearly, thus far the government has not stated in any way how it’s going to respond, in what time frame to the specific recommendations. Remember, the LLRC, while it didn’t deal adequately with accountability, did make recommendations about return of displaced persons, about providing names of those who are detained that currently are held clandestinely by the government, a series of issues, in fact, 280 recommendations. And so the government has not in any way publicized what it intends to do.
The report of the LLRC was just released in December, and Peiris has said that the Sri Lankan inquiry is just now beginning. That’s been his excuse for not allowing any sort of international inquiry into what happened during the war and specifically in the last few months of the war. Is the international community buying this?
No, in fact the clearest evidence of the unhappiness of the international community is the adoption in March, March 22, of a resolution by the UN Human Rights Council. A resolution that was cosponsored by forty different countries and that was approved 24 to 8, that essentially says wait a minute, what are your plans for implementing the recommendations of the LLRC? And then it states specifically that the report does not adequately address serious allegations of violations of international law. And so, it presses the government to come forward and say what it will do to investigate those allegations and to hold people accountable for those who violated them. And remember, what we’re talking about here are very specific allegations of the targeting of civilians, the shelling of no-fire zones. Where the government said this is a no-fire zone, we’re not going to be attacking it, civilians went in there, and then they were attacked. The killing of surrendering LTTE cadres, sexual and gender based violence, disappearances, these are the kinds of specific allegations that the UN Human Rights Council, the Crisis Group, and others have essentially said to the government, you have to investigate, these are violations of international law, these are your international obligations.
Human rights were obviously a big part of the questioning that Peiris got from you and from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A couple of days after he left, a high profile political prisoner was released, Sarath Fonseka, who ran against President Rajapaksa in the 2010 election. He was released right after the conversation with Secretary of State Clinton. Was this a political move?
It’s not clear. Fonseka, remember, was a high ranking military official throughout the conflict and was, in fact, in charge of many of the operations of the government forces. He was imprisoned because he attempted to oppose Rajapaksa’s reelection. But this doesn’t change the basic facts. There are a thousand prisoners whose names we don’t know, that the government acknowledges holding, but has not charged, has not revealed the names to their families. So these are people that families consider to be disappeared because they don’t know what their situation is. And it also doesn’t answer the question of the investigations of all of those who were killed, all of the civilians, all of these actions that constitute war crimes.
What is the state of those who were internally displaced during the war?
The government says, in fact Peiris said, that some 98% of those who were detained after the war had been able to be returned and reintegrated into their former communities in the north. Two reports that Crisis Group just did, question that significantly. We found that there are still 120,000 people displaced who had not been able to return to their communities. And we also found that in the north, the Sri Lankan military essentially controlled all movement and development. And instead of having civilian administrators, to whom the largely local Tamil community could reach and discuss, the military, essentially, were making all the decisions. And so we questioned that, as well, as an obstacle to real reconciliation if that’s the government’s intention.
The secretary did press for the demilitarization of the north. It doesn’t seem, based on actions marking the third anniversary of the end of the war, that they’re any closer to doing that. What is your take on the likelihood that the military will relinquish control of the north?
We just don’t see it. They’re building new bases and they’re confiscating land and establishing what appears to be a very permanent and large presence there. This simply contradicts the view that the goal is return to normal civilian life, in which the communities have an opportunity to reach decisions about their future.
This visit has shown that they recognize they have to do something. The question remains what that’s going to be? And if anything they’re going to do is actually substantive?
At this point the answer has to be no. They clearly are attempting to take procedural steps again that relate to forming commissions, putting out press releases, but not to do anything substantive with respect to investigating credible allegations of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by government forces or holding anyone accountable.
Edited for print