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Sri Lanka: Crisis Group Refuses to Appear Before Flawed Commission
Sri Lanka: Crisis Group Refuses to Appear Before Flawed Commission
Unfinished Business in Sri Lanka
Unfinished Business in Sri Lanka
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

Unfinished Business in Sri Lanka

Originally published in Inside Story

When UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon touched down in Sri Lanka yesterday, he arrived in a very different country from the one he last saw, immediately following the end of the civil war. Back then, in May 2009, he was shocked by the physical devastation and human toll of the final months of war, when as many as 40,000 civilians are believed to have been killed in the north and east. The internal review he ordered faulted the United Nations for its “systemic failure” to protect human rights and civilian lives at the war’s end.

Today, much of the physical damage has been repaired. Since 2015, a new government led by president Maithripala Sirisena has championed a reform agenda that includes important commitments to end impunity, promote the rule of law, and encourage reconciliation. Yet political, social and psychological wounds run deep throughout the country, threatening the fragile progress made so far.

The UN has a mixed history in Sri Lanka. On Ban’s last visit, the country was ruled by president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his powerful family, riding high on the wave of triumphalism and Sinhala nationalism that followed the military’s defeat of the Tamil Tigers. A panel of experts Ban appointed in 2010 found credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both sides. Although it was denounced by the government and its nationalist supporters, the panel’s report contributed to the series of increasingly strong resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council calling for accountability and reconciliation.

The defeat of Rajapaksa and election of Sirisena as president in January 2015 opened unexpected space in Sri Lanka for the Human Rights Council’s resolutions to be acted on. It also marked a growing acceptance that reconciliation required accountability for war crimes and for corruption and the abuse of power.

Sirisena’s new government co-sponsored a landmark resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council in October 2015, which committed his administration to establishing offices on missing persons and reparations, a truth commission, and a special court to hear cases of alleged crimes during the war – including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and sexual violence. The government also promised to investigate other human rights cases, restore the independence of the judiciary and police, reduce the role of the military and agree on constitutional reforms to address the political marginalisation of Sri Lankan Tamils, which gave birth to the years of war and terror.

UN agencies are actively supporting the Sirisena government’s reform agenda, but government efforts have been under-resourcedand weakened by mixed messages and confused lines of authority. Clear direction from the president and from prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been lacking. While there is much greater space for dissent, some improvement in rights protections, and progress towards a new constitution, there has been no decisive break with the culture of impunity. Meanwhile, key sectors within the government are actively undermining reforms.

Take, for example, the government’s pledge to the Human Rights Council that it would replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act with new laws consistent with human rights standards. Despite that undertaking, police continue to make arrests under this repressive legislation, and some 200 Tamils are still detained under its provisions, many held for years without charge.

Security officials have reportedly interfered with police investigations that implicate military intelligence units in murders and abductions during the Rajapaksa years. Defence budgets have grown and the military remains a powerful presence in Tamil majority regions, running hotels and other businesses and occupying large amounts of private land. Tamils are increasingly angry at the government’s failure to live up to its promises on all these issues.

Ban should urge that the military cooperate with the police and judiciary. He should also offer UN assistance for the Sri Lankan military’s transition to peacetime duties in two ways: by helping to assess its landholdings and assisting families returning to previously occupied land, and by assisting with job training for retiring soldiers and psycho-social support to veterans and families.

While parliament’s approval earlier this month of a bill to establish the Office on Missing Persons is a welcome first step, Ban must press the president and prime minister to implement all of its promises to the Human Rights Council. A key element of these commitments is a special court for war-related crimes, with the “participation… of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators.” With nationalists arguing this is an infringement on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, the president and prime minister have reversed position and rejected foreign judges.

Although the Sirisena government co-sponsored the Human Rights Council resolution last year, it now seems to be dragging its feet. It appears increasingly that the government does not intend to pass the legislation needed to establish the special court before the Council meets in March 2017, a move that could help to evade further international scrutiny.

Ban must make clear his support for continued oversight by the UN Human Rights Council until the government has passed the legislation needed to establish a strong court with the legal basis and the expertise – including international participation – to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Even if the government succeeds in winning approval for a constitution that reflects Sri Lanka’s ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity, that will not be enough to ensure reconciliation in the absence of accountability.

Ban should encourage Sirisena and Wickremesinghe to make a much stronger public case – especially to Sinhalese communities – in support of their transitional justice and constitutional initiatives. While resistance from Sinhala nationalists and the Rajapaksa-led opposition is real, strong public outreach and the government’s two-thirds parliamentary majority provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address both the causes and consequences of Sri Lanka’s thirty years of war. As part of this, Ban should also urge that the design of the court and the truth commission take into account the recommendations of public consultations now under way across the island.

Finally, Ban should acknowledge the UN’s failure to protect Sri Lankans during the final months of the war and its immediate aftermath, and commit the UN to an active role defending rights through its ongoing work in Sri Lanka. This should include an expanded presence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and improved vetting of the human rights record of military personnel who serve in UN missions – particularly with respect to allegations of sexual abuse.

Above all, UN member states must back up Ban’s words with the right combination of encouragement and pressure needed to deepen and sustain the potentially historic transformation now under way in Sri Lanka. With the UN’s help, Sri Lanka could yet build a state that respects the rule of law and protects the rights of all its citizens.