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Sri Lanka: Crisis Group Refuses to Appear Before Flawed Commission
Sri Lanka: Crisis Group Refuses to Appear Before Flawed Commission
Sri Lanka: Landslide win for the Rajapaksa puts democracy and pluralism at risk
Sri Lanka: Landslide win for the Rajapaksa puts democracy and pluralism at risk
Open Letter / Asia

Sri Lanka: Crisis Group Refuses to Appear Before Flawed Commission

In a joint letter, the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have declined the invitation of Sri Lanka's Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to appear before it.

The Sri Lankan government is promoting the Commission as an independent mechanism for reconciliation and restorative justice after its decades-long civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), yet the Commission fails to meet basic standards and is fatally flawed in structure and practice.

Critically, there is no requirement that the Commission investigate the many credible allegations that both the government security forces and the LTTE committed war crimes during the final months of conflict last year, as detailed in Crisis Group's May 2010 report War Crimes in Sri Lanka.

In its two months of hearings to date, the Commission's members, many of them retired senior government employees, have made no attempt to question the government's version of events and have instead offered current officials a platform for continued misrepresentations of the facts.

These failings are reinforced by the absence of any provisions for the protection of witnesses to alleged crimes - a particularly crippling factor given that government officials have labeled as "traitors" Sri Lankans who have made claims or provided evidence of violations of international humanitarian law by government forces.

Appearing before Sri Lanka's LLRC under current circumstances could put witnesses at risk and lend legitimacy to a process that is neither a credible investigation nor an adequate or genuine process to address the decades of violence that Sri Lankans from all regions and communities have suffered. The growing authoritarianism of the government since the end of the war - exhibited most recently by the removal of presidential term limits and any remaining independence of commissions on human rights, police and elections - would make it difficult for even the best-intentioned commission of inquiry to make a meaningful contribution to political reconciliation or accountability now.

Crisis Group continues to call for an independent international inquiry as the only credible means to examine allegations of war crimes by government forces and the LTTE and urges the government of Sri Lanka to cooperate fully with the panel of experts appointed to advise the United Nations Secretary-General on issues of post-war accountability in Sri Lanka.

The full text of the joint letter follows.

Open Letter to S.M. Samarakoon, Secretary, Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation

Dear Mr. Samarakoon,

Thank you for inviting Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group to appear before Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). As the invitation notes, we all closely follow developments in Sri Lanka, and we remain committed to helping the Sri Lankan people find a just and peaceful way forward from the decades of civil war and violence they have suffered.

Unfortunately, we are compelled to decline the Commission’s invitation. While we would welcome the opportunity to appear before a genuine, credible effort to pursue accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, the LLRC falls far short of such an effort. It not only fails to meet basic international standards for independent and impartial inquiries, but it is proceeding against a backdrop of government failure to address impunity and continuing human rights abuses.

Our three organizations believe that the persistence of these and other destructive trends indicates that currently Sri Lanka’s government and justice system cannot or will not uphold the rule of law and respect basic rights. As you will be aware, we have highlighted our concerns in a number of reports. Of particular relevance are Crisis Group’s May 2010 report War Crimes in Sri Lanka and its June 2009 report Sri Lanka’s Judiciary: Politicised Courts, Compromised Rights; Human Rights Watch’s February 2010 report Legal Limbo: The Uncertain Fate of Detained LTTE Suspects in Sri Lanka and its February 2009 report War on the Displaced: Sri Lankan Army and LTTE Abuses against Civilians in the Vanni; and Amnesty International’s June 2009 report Twenty Years of Make Believe: Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry and its August 2009 Unlock the Camps in Sri Lanka: Safety and Dignity for the Displaced Now. These and other relevant publications are included in the attached list and are available on our websites www.crisisgroup.org, www.hrw.org, and www.amnesty.org. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has made no progress since the end of the war in addressing our concerns detailed in these reports.

In addition to these broader failings of the government, we believe that the LLRC is deeply flawed in structure and practice. Of particular concern are the following:

Inadequate mandate

Nothing in the LLRC’s mandate requires it to investigate the many credible allegations that both the government security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) committed serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law during the civil war, especially in the final months, including summary executions, torture, attacks on civilians and civilian objects, and other war crimes. The need to investigate them thoroughly and impartially is especially urgent given the government’s efforts to promote its methods of warfare abroad as being protective of the civilian population, when the facts demonstrate otherwise.

Nor has the LLRC shown any genuine interest in investigating such allegations. Instead, it has allowed government officials to repeat unchallenged what they have been saying without basis for months: that the government strictly followed a “zero civilian casualty policy”. Indeed, during the testimony of Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa on 17 August 2010, the primary intervention of the Commission chairman, C.R. de Silva, was to prompt the secretary to provide the Commission with a 14 February 2009 letter from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) thanking the Navy for assisting in a medical evacuation. While highlighting that one letter, the chairman and his colleagues failed to ask the defence secretary about any of the ICRC’s numerous public statements between January and the end of May 2009 raising concerns about excessive civilian casualties, violations of international humanitarian law and insufficient humanitarian access.

The Commission also has not required officials to explain the government’s public misrepresentations during the war. Particularly disturbing are the government’s repeated claims that there were under 100,000 civilians left in the Vanni at the beginning of 2009 when officials later conceded there were some 300,000, and that Sri Lankan forces were not using heavy weapons in civilian areas when the military eventually admitted they were.

Lack of independence

A fundamental requirement for any commission of this type is that its members are independent. The membership of the LLRC is far from that. To start, both the chairman C.R. de Silva and member H.M.G.S. Palihakkara were senior government representatives during the final year of the war. They publicly defended the conduct of the government and military against allegations of war crimes. Indeed during two widely reported incidents – the shelling of the first “no-fire zone” declared by the government in late January and the shelling of Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK) hospital in February – H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, then Sri Lanka’s representative to the UN, told CNN that government forces had confirmed that even though the LTTE was firing out from the “no-fire zone”, the government was not returning fire; and that the military had confirmed they knew the coordinates of PTK hospital and they had not fired on it.

Beyond his public defense of government conduct during the war, there is also evidence that as attorney general, C.R. de Silva actively undermined the independence of the 2006-2009 Presidential Commission of Inquiry that was tasked with investigating allegations of serious human rights violations by the security forces. Mr. de Silva’s conflicts of interest were repeatedly criticized by the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), which had been invited by the President to oversee the Commission’s work. The members of the IIGEP resigned in April 2008 and cited Mr. de Silva’s conflicts of interest as a major reason for doing so. Most other members of the LLRC have some history of working for the Sri Lankan government. None is known for taking independent political positions, and many have publicly declared their allegiance to the President and government.

Lack of witness protection

Equally worrying is the absence of any provisions for the protection of witnesses who may wish to testify before the Commission. Sri Lanka has never had a functioning witness protection system, nor has the Commission established any ad hoc procedures for witness protection. The lack of witness protection is particularly crippling in the current atmosphere in Sri Lanka in which government officials label as “traitors” persons making allegations that government forces might have committed violations of international law. Only a brave few have testified before the LLRC about war crimes in the north despite that threat. Moreover, even though the war is over, the country is still operating under a state of emergency, with laws that criminalize political speech and where there is no meaningful investigation of attacks on government critics. This clearly undermines the Commission’s ability to conduct credible investigations of alleged violations of international or national law. Until effective protection of witnesses can be guaranteed, no organization or individual can responsibly disclose confidential information to the Commission.

Past commission failures

Our decision to decline the LLRC’s invitation to testify also stems from Sri Lanka’s long history of failed and politicized commissions of inquiry. Amnesty International’s report, Twenty Years of Make-Believe: Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry, documents the failure of successive Sri Lankan governments to provide accountability for violations, including enforced disappearances, unlawful killings, and torture. The most recent instance is the work of the 2006-2009 Commission of Inquiry into 16 cases of serious human rights violations by both the government security forces and the LTTE. Even with broad international support and technical assistance from the IIGEP, the Commission investigated only a handful of cases, failed to protect witnesses from harassment by security personnel, and produced no evidence that led to more effective police investigations. The final report of this Commission is said to have been given to President Rajapaksa and remains unpublished.

Today Sri Lanka has no credible domestic mechanisms able to respond effectively to serious human rights violations. The Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission lacks independence and has itself acknowledged its lack of capacity to deal with investigations into enforced disappearances. At the international level, Sri Lanka has 5,749 outstanding cases being reviewed by the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, several hundred of which have been reported since the beginning of 2006.

In the current context of human rights violations in Sri Lanka, even an independent and fully empowered commission would face grave difficulties in pursuing accountability or contributing to lasting reconciliation. Even though the war is over, a state of emergency continues to be in place. Anti-terrorism laws and emergency regulations grant extraordinary and arbitrary powers to the military and police and continue to be used to target critics of the government. Tamils in the north are living under a heavy military presence.

Impunity remains the order of the day: there have been no prosecutions in any of Sri Lanka’s well-documented cases of human rights violations from 2005 onwards, and media personnel and human rights activists continue to report harassment and threats by persons linked to the government. In addition, the recent passage of the 18th Amendment further empowers the presidency and effectively removes any remaining independence of commissions on human rights, elections, the judiciary and other issues. Without positive change in these areas, it is hard to see how even the best-intentioned commission of inquiry could make any meaningful contribution to accountability and reconciliation.

Should a genuine and credible process eventually be established – featuring truly independent commission members, effective powers of witness protection, and a mandate to explore the full range of alleged violations of national and international law; and backed up by government action to end impunity and ensure that police and courts launch effective and impartial prosecutions – we all would be pleased to appear.

Yours sincerely,

Louise Arbour, President and CEO, International Crisis Group

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch

Salil Shetty, Secretary General, Amnesty International

Op-Ed / Asia

Sri Lanka: Landslide win for the Rajapaksa puts democracy and pluralism at risk

Originally published in LSE South Asia Centre

Twice postponed because of COVID-19, Sri Lanka's parliamentary election finally took place on 5 August. The SLPP's electoral victory should be understood not simply as a result of dissatisfaction with rival party UNP, but of the failure of its internationally-backed liberal reform agenda to gain lasting traction with Sri Lankan voters.

Wednesday, 5 August saw the landslide general election victory of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The vote sets Sri Lanka on a path likely to bring fundamental political and social change. With 59 percent of the vote, the SLPP won enough seats – together with allied parties – to achieve the two-thirds parliamentary majority they requested from voters in order to change the constitution. With executive power shared between the Rajapaksa brothers, the family and their party have the power to reshape Sri Lanka’s political institutions in fundamental – and potentially dangerous – ways.

The Sinhala nationalist ideology the Rajapaksas and the SLPP promote has long structured Sri Lankan politics, marginalising Tamils (about 15 percent of the population) and, in different ways, Muslims (who make up ten percent). The explicitly pro-Sinhala and anti-minority rhetoric of the SLPP’s campaign, the Rajapaksas’ demonstrated commitment to centralised and authoritarian rule – Mahinda’s presidency from 2005-2015 saw widespread human rights violations and numerous well-documented atrocities –  and the comprehensive defeat of the political voices supporting a more liberal, pluralist and tolerant vision of Sri Lanka – together these threaten to entrench a more dangerously intolerant form of majoritarianism than Sri Lanka has seen before.

Following Gotabaya’s decisive victory in the November 2019 presidential election, and in light of the continued popularity of his elder brother Mahinda, few political observers doubted the SLPP would win a big victory. Given the mostly proportional nature of Sri Lanka’s electoral system, however, few expected it would win a two-thirds majority, something no party had achieved before in a single election. That it was able to cross this threshold is due in part to the long and bitter infighting that hobbled its main rival, the United National Party (UNP), which eventually split it in two just before the election campaign began. The historic decimation of the UNP – it gained just one seat from two percent of the vote, while its splinter formation, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), won 24 percent and 54 seats – was a public rebuke for the party’s disastrous incompetence when in power from 2015-2019.

Crippled by the dysfunctional cohabitation between President Maithripala Sirisena, leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and his prime minister, UNP leader Ranil Wickemesinghe, the government ignored intelligence warnings and failed to prevent the ISIS-inspired Easter bombings that killed 279 people and injured hundreds more. The SLPP ran on Gotabaya’s trademark promises of security and competent technocratic rule, the strong performance of his minority government in limiting the spread of COVID-19, and its aggressively Sinhala and Buddhist agenda. All this resonated widely with Sinhalese voters who had seen little improvement in their economic situation under the UNP and had received a steady diet of nationalist, often anti-Muslim, rhetoric from the overwhelmingly pro-SLPP and pro-Rajapaksa state and private media. The SLPP also capitalised on its strong local party structures and its sophisticated and unrivalled use of social media.

But the SLPP’s victory goes deeper than current and recent party dynamics. It expresses the exhaustion – and the Sinhalese public’s rejection – of the liberal, largely western-oriented elite that dominated the UNP and, until at least 2005, had strong influence within the SLPP’s predecessor, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Promises of inter-ethnic reconciliation, constitutional reform for greater devolution of power to Tamil-majority regions, strengthened rule of law and human rights protections and accountability for past abuses – this was a political reform agenda encouraged by western governments and taken up, if rather timidly, by the last UNP administration, after being endorsed on paper by other governments before it. That agenda is now dead. Badly packaged to the public, linked to no clear or tangible benefits to average Sinhalese during the UNP’s 2015-19 government, and undercut by the economic liberalisation policies that accompanied it, the liberal reform agenda was no match for the relentless nationalist rhetoric and framing of issues by the Rajapaksas and their media allies since the formation of the SLPP in 2016. The UNP’s back-to-back defeats in 2019 and 2020 express the decisive victory of nationalist narratives and policies that have been promoted for decades.

Sri Lanka’s democracy has always been incomplete and deeply flawed. Tamils have been excluded from effective power-sharing and their collective identity undermined. Muslims’ economic and cultural security is at growing risk. But even as an ethnocracy, rather than a full democracy, important elements in Sri Lanka have resisted the full flowering of a Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic project. The island’s embattled pluralist traditions, and the occasional attempts to give institutional form to Sri Lanka’s multicultural and multi-religious demographic reality, however, are now so severely weakened as to be politically irrelevant. Under Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency the state has abandoned any pretence of Sri Lanka as a multi-cultural nation. Even as the country suffered repeated periods of insurgency, brutal counter-insurgency and mass atrocity – culminating in the tens of thousands of Tamil civilians killed in the final stages of the war with the Tamil Tigers in 2009 – Sri Lanka retained genuine democratic energies and traditions of questioning and contesting the ruling powers. These traditions – and those who wish to maintain them – are now under intense pressure.

What this is likely to mean in practice is a deepening of developments already begun during Gotabaya’s first nine months in office. The president’s preference for centralised rule with little oversight is clear: he has ruled without parliament for the previous five months – despite the constitution’s explicit limit of three months – relying instead on a series of ad hoc presidential task forces to set and implement policy. The SLPP’s central campaign pledge was to abolish or drastically rework – they never proposed specific changes – the nineteenth amendment. Approved by parliament in 2015 with only one vote against, the amendment limited the president’s previously near-absolute powers. It expanded the powers of the prime minister and strengthened a series of independent oversight commissions – e.g., on police, human rights, judiciary and right to information – and the constitutional council that appoints them. All this is certain to change. Gotabaya and Mahinda might, quite naturally, disagree over how to distribute their respective powers as president and prime minister, and intra-family tensions could shape policy, but it is clear that the executive as a whole will be made significantly stronger and the power of the Rajapaksa family consolidated for the long term.

The military and the Buddhist clergy will also continue to enjoy the expanded prestige and power they have received so far under Gotabaya. The ministry of defence has taken over numerous non-military agencies, and serving and retired military personnel have been appointed to at least twenty senior civil administrative positions, including the presidential task force on controlling the COVID-19 outbreak, chaired by the serving army commander. A separate presidential task force “to build … a disciplined, virtuous and lawful society” is staffed entirely by military and police officers and has sweeping powers to oversee and direct government agencies outside of established procedures. A number of the retired and serving generals are implicated by the UN and others in gross human rights violations during the final months of the civil war. A third task force on preserving archaeological heritage in the multi-ethnic and majority Tamil-speaking eastern province features senior defence and police officials and prominent nationalist Buddhist monks, but no Tamils or Muslims.

Tamils and Muslims in the north and east feel their land rights are increasingly vulnerable to seizures by a range of government initiatives, often through the construction of military camps and Buddhist temples, or through environmental and archaeological regulations. The government is also expected to propose new legislation to regulate Muslim religious education and marriage laws – done in the name of curbing “extremism” – as part of a wider set of policies widely seen by Muslims and rights activists as designed to weaken the community and assert the primacy of Sinhalese and Buddhists. Soon after coming to power, Gotabaya established a Buddhist Advisory Council, which he meets once a month, and his inauguration ceremony in November and Mahinda’s swearing-in as prime minister on 9 August were both held at important and politically-powerful Buddhist temples.

The first nine months of Gotabaya’s presidency has seen a concerted attack on the rule of law and the independence of the police and judiciary. Police investigations into corruption, murder and abduction cases implicating officials serving when Mahinda was president, including Gotabaya and senior military officials, have been stopped, with the key investigators either transferred or in some cases themselves charged with crimes on flimsy grounds. There are increasing reports of lawyers involved in human rights cases facing intimidation by police or military, and there are growing fears of a return to the active repression of dissent experienced during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, when scores of media personnel, humanitarian workers and political activists, particularly but not only Tamils, were killed, assaulted or forced into exile. With the government now possessing new technologies that provide radically expanded powers of surveillance, and enjoying unprecedented influence in both traditional and social media, democratic space is at real risk.

In this environment, the opposition – divided on ideological and ethno-religious lines – has its work cut out for it. Following the collapse of the UNP, the SJB will face a major test in becoming an effective opposition. Led by long-time UNP leader-in-waiting Sajith Premadasa, the party will need to find a way of distinguishing itself from the failed liberalism of the UNP while effectively challenging the hyper-nationalism of the SLPP. The election also weakened the position of the leftist Janath Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which once again failed to emerge as a strong third force, despite the hopes and growing support of progressive intellectuals and activists. Thanks in part to savvy government moves, the Tamil vote was increasingly splintered, with smaller parties eating considerably into the support of the largest grouping, the Tamil National Alliance. Muslim parties, and community as a whole, remain divided and have yet to devise an effective response to the years of anti-Muslim violence and hate-speech and the rising levels of distrust that followed the Easter bombings, which Gotabaya and the SLPP have skilfully exploited.

Despite the Rajapaksas’ overwhelming victory and essentially unbridled power, the next months and years will bring major challenges.  Most urgent is a looming economic crisis. Prior to the arrival of COVID-19, the government was facing major difficulties paying back its large foreign debt, with some $3-4 billion in loan payments due over the next year. Chronic fiscal deficits, which make it hard to maintain Sri Lanka’s beleaguered welfare state, has already grown under Gotabaya’s watch and are expected to grow further. The COVID-19 crisis, while surprisingly well-controlled domestically, has crippled the nation’s main sources of desperately needed hard currency: tourism, remittances from overseas workers, and exports. To date, the government has presented no concrete proposals for bridging its financial gaps, other than appealing to creditors for debt relief and deepening its ties with China, which offered a $500 million emergency loan in March. While the economic pain has yet to reach breaking point, popular expectations of government relief are high. Should they be disappointed, political unrest is not out of the question. Many Muslims fear they could be made scapegoats, and a convenient target for displacing popular anger.

It remains uncertain whether China has the resources or the will to bail out Sri Lanka single-handedly. The new government is certain to repeat its previously successful strategy of using fears about China’s growing political – and possible military – role in Sri Lanka to encourage increased financial support from India, Japan and Western governments. With hostility to China rising sharply among all these actors, Sri Lanka’s ability to play the two blocs off against each other may not be endless, however. Should economic and military competition with China continue to grow, it remains possible the anti-Chinese bloc could choose to collaborate more closely and challenge Sri Lanka’s move further into the Chinese orbit by using their collective political and economic leverage in more punitive ways. Given the increased use of human rights-related targeted sanctions against Chinese officials, this could be accompanied by renewed challenges on the unfinished human rights and accountability agenda left-over from the brutal end to the civil war. This could either be through the UN Human Rights Council, which once again considers Sri Lanka in March 2021, or through attempts to assert universal jurisdiction or impose targeted sanctions against some of the key military and political leaders – including Gotabaya – against whom there are credible allegations of serious violations of international criminal law.

For the moment, however, all of Sri Lanka’s key international partners appear willing to work with the newly-elected government. Western governments and the UN in particular hope it can be cajoled into moderating its more authoritarian and hardline nationalist policies, while successfully managing the economic crisis that appears to be just on the horizon. Sri Lanka’s international partners will ultimately need to develop more effective ways to support its pluralist traditions and protect its democratic space than has been the case to date. In the meantime, one has to hope that Sri Lanka’s embattled rights activists, independent journalists and other democratic and pluralist voices are able to develop the new strategies that will be required to resist the country’s complete collapse into nationalist authoritarianism.