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Sri Lanka: Crisis Group Refuses to Appear Before Flawed Commission
Sri Lanka: Crisis Group Refuses to Appear Before Flawed Commission
Impunity and Justice: Why the UN Human Rights Council Must Stay Engaged in Sri Lanka
Impunity and Justice: Why the UN Human Rights Council Must Stay Engaged 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

Sri Lankan Tamil women hold up photographs of their missing family members as they wait to hand over a petition to the U.N. head office in Colombo on 13 March 2013. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Commentary / Asia

Impunity and Justice: Why the UN Human Rights Council Must Stay Engaged in Sri Lanka

As the United Nations Human Rights Council meets in Geneva this month, it’s time to assess how far Sri Lanka has come since last year’s passage of a landmark resolution to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights.

Resolution 30/1, adopted in October, was a major achievement for the Council – and an important milestone in Sri Lanka’s journey toward lasting peace and a just settlement of its decades-old ethnic conflict. Following years of bitter resistance by the previous Sri Lankan government to international efforts to encourage post-war reconciliation and accountability, the new government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe displayed admirable political courage in negotiating a consensus resolution containing many of the elements needed for a sustainable peace.

However, Sri Lanka today is not yet the success story that many in the international community claim it to be. Progress on implementing the Council resolution has been slow and often grudging, and there are growing doubts about the government’s political will and ability to see the complex process through. For Sri Lanka to stay on the path toward recovery, it needs sustained international support and engagement.

Speaking at this critical juncture, High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein this week encouraged the government to prepare a comprehensive strategy on transitional justice with “inclusive and meaningful engagement from all Sri Lankans”. As Zeid prepares to report to the Council on 29 June on progress toward implementation of the resolution, member states should send strong public and private messages to the Sri Lankan government, offering financial, capacity-building and other tangible support for its efforts – as well as clear suggestions for improvement.

The Reform Agenda

The government has adopted an ambitious reform agenda to address the many challenges the country faces: keeping a beleaguered economy afloat, strengthening the rule of law, tackling corruption, drafting a new constitution, promoting reconciliation efforts with the Tamil population in the north and east, and establishing a multi-pronged set of transitional justice mechanisms agreed with the Council.

Unfortunately, the entire program risks collapse unless new energy, focus and resources are brought to bear. A weakening economy and slow going on most other fronts have led to waning support from the key constituencies that brought the government to power – Tamils, Muslims and reform-minded Sinhalese. Belief in the possibility of meaningful progress is fading across the board.

Efforts of the national unity government – a coalition between President Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) – have been weakened by a variety of factors. First, the government lacks technical capacity and trained personnel on key issues. Second, there is no unified strategy for advancing reforms – with the SLFP split between Sirisena’s wing and supporters of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and often at odds with the UNP, particularly on economic policy. Third, the administration has not mounted a coherent public relations campaign to sell its successes and build support for the more politically controversial aspects of its program, including transitional justice.

The most critical element of the reform agenda is how to tackle the entrenched culture of impunity, which has fed multiple bloody insurgencies over the past 40 years. Sri Lanka must seize this narrow window of opportunity to address the problem. Failure to succeed in this effort will undermine virtually all the other reforms the government says it wants to achieve. Progress toward ending impunity is essential to reestablishing the rule of law for all ethnic communities, reasserting civilian control over the military and building the trust needed for a lasting political solution.

Notable progress has been made toward a new constitution, as parliament has begun to meet as a constitutional assembly. The report of the Public Representations Committee, tasked with gathering ideas from the public, was issued at the end of May. It endorsed a range of bold reforms, including the incorporation of a bill of rights. The committee failed to reach agreement, however, on expanded devolution of power for Tamil-majority regions in the north and east, a key issue noted in the Council resolution. With parliamentary consensus likely to fall well short of long-standing Tamil demands for federalism and national self-determination, the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) could face a major challenge in winning Tamil backing in the referendum needed to approve the new constitution, with the pro-engagement leadership of the TNA weakened as a result.

Transitional Justice

Sri Lanka has made only halting efforts toward developing the four transitional justice mechanisms pledged to the Council – a truth commission, reparations and missing persons offices and, most controversially, an independent special court for war crimes with international participation. The national unity government should be encouraged to design and sell its Council-mandated transitional justice efforts as part and parcel of its larger agenda to promote “good governance” and the rule of law, which has widespread public backing in all communities. Meanwhile, donors should deepen their support – through training, equipment and personnel – to build the Sri Lankan state’s capacity to establish effective justice mechanisms, strengthen criminal investigations and improve witness protection.

 

Transitional justice efforts should be sold as part and parcel of the good governance agenda.

In advance of this month’s Council sessions, the government has scrambled to finalise a package of reforms it can present as evidence of progress. At the top of the list is the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), legislation for which was approved by the cabinet on 24 May and is expected to be presented to parliament in the coming days. While the proposed office would likely help thousands of families seeking information about their loved ones who went missing during the civil war, it has been criticised for lacking any effective link to criminal investigations and thereby potentially maintaining impunity for large-scale enforced disappearances. The government has also been criticised for its hurried and minimal consultation with victims’ families prior to finalising the proposed legislation. Council members should encourage the government to submit the draft bill, prior to parliamentary approval, to the national consultations process that is due to get underway by the end of June – both to improve the quality of the legislation and to win back flagging confidence among victims’ groups and civil society.

The government’s recent ratification, in May, of the UN Convention on Disappearances is a welcome move. Incorporating the treaty in domestic legislation, as promised to the Council, will be even more significant. These steps will mean very little, however, if the government remains unable or unwilling to prosecute cases of abduction and murder, particularly those for which they already have substantial evidence.

International participation is essential to the credibility of the special court.

Council members and the High Commissioner should press the government to follow through on its commitment to meaningful forms of international participation on the proposed special court for war crimes. The Council resolution specifies the importance of including “Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators” in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism. Under domestic pressure, the president and prime minister backed away from promises to the UN and announced there will be no foreign judges. Given the decades-long failures of government commissions and judicial processes, international participation is essential to the credibility and effectiveness of the special court. Council members should insist that the government holds the line on the involvement of international judges, at least in observer roles, and devises concrete plans for outside experts to be included in investigations, prosecutions, forensics and witness protection.

Prosecution of military personnel, particularly with foreign legal involvement, was always sure to be the most controversial aspect of transitional justice for many Sinhalese. There needs to be a clear strategy to address Sinhala nationalist resistance, including by actively promoting the benefits of transitional justice for all communities. Instead, the president, prime minister and other key officials have regularly retreated when criticised by Rajapaksa and his nationalist supporters.

Even the most optimistic assessments of the government’s transitional justice policies suggest the government intends to postpone any moves to establish the promised special court until after March 2017, when the High Commissioner is due to issue his final report on implementation of the Council’s 2015 resolution. While justice for crimes committed by both sides during the war will necessarily take a long time to achieve, further delays in even initiating the process will only confirm suspicions that the government is merely buying time until the international community loses interest.

Legislation to establish transitional justice mechanisms must be on the books by next year.

Council members should press the government to begin building the legal, institutional and staffing capacity needed for all the promised transitional justice mechanisms. The High Commissioner should insist that legislation needed to establish these mechanisms must be on the books by March 2017, in advance of that month’s Human Rights Council session. These measures should include legislation to criminalise war crimes and crimes against humanity, and to establish command responsibility as a mode of criminal liability.

Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption

Confidence is faltering in the government’s commitment to restore the rule of law, a pledge that was central to the January 2015 election of Sirisena. Investigating complex financial crimes and political killings under the former regime is undoubtedly a slow, difficult and dangerous work. The challenges are made more acute by the involvement of key figures from the old regime still serving as ministers, bureaucrats and law enforcement officials, some of whom are known to be actively obstructing progress. There is increasing evidence that senior officials in the Attorney General’s department and in the military have blocked important criminal investigations.

Sri Lankan opposition party workers erect a cutout of their presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena in the north central town of Polonnaruwa on 30 November 2014. AFP/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi

The government must take steps to dismiss or discipline obstructionists. Officials who lobbied to undermine UN efforts to support justice and accountability under the Rajapaksa regime should also be removed from policymaking positions. In order to address long-criticised conflicts of interest in the Attorney General’s department, it is necessary to establish a permanent, independent special prosecutor for serious human rights cases in which state officials are alleged perpetrators.

It is necessary to establish an independent special prosecutor for serious human rights cases involving state officials.

Meanwhile, credible reports indicate that witnesses in criminal cases implicating the security forces are facing serious threats. The government has yet to establish an effective witness protection program or revise its weak witness protection law, in compliance with a clause in last year’s Council resolution promising to do so.

Progress on key criminal cases is needed to reverse the growing sense that the national unity government is not substantially different from previous corrupt and inefficient governments. Progress on less politically controversial cases is also essential to rebuild confidence that the government is willing to tackle impunity and can establish a credible process of accountability for war-related crimes.

Adoption of some important legal and institutional reforms is said to be very close – including legislation to replace the repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with new laws consistent with human rights standards, as required by the Council resolution. However, recent arrests under the PTA have violated due process and reawakened fears of a return to “white van” abductions, which were a primary means for hundreds of enforced disappearances under the Rajapaksa government. Detainees are still being held under the sweeping provisions of the law.

The government should not wait for repeal of the PTA before ending violations.

Council members need to press the Sri Lankan government to end abuses by the Terrorism Investigation Division of the police (TID), which continues to detain suspects without charge, often in aggressive and humiliating ways. TID must be made to follow established procedures – recently reiterated by Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission – on detentions, and personnel suspected of involvement in serious abuses must be suspended, investigated and prosecuted. The government should not wait for repeal of the PTA and the establishment of a new system before acting to end current violations.

Confidence Building and Military Reform

On ethnic issues and the legacy of the war, the president and other senior officials have set a more conciliatory tone – seen most recently in the much less triumphalist commemoration of the seventh anniversary of the end of the civil war. Nonetheless, the past six months have seen very little progress on the key issues of concern to Tamils in the north and east – concerns reflected in the text of last year’s Council resolution: the release of hundreds of detainees held under the PTA, the return of land held by the military, investigations into the tens of thousands of forcibly disappeared people, and the removal of the military from civilian affairs in the north and east. Indeed, progress has been so slow and grudging that what were intended to be confidence-building measures have become confidence-weakening measures.

Trust in the government’s good intentions has also been damaged by the tight and often intimidating surveillance of Tamil civil society activists by military and police, and by unwarranted arrests. The president and prime minister appear wary of asserting their authority over the military, and there has been little movement toward developing a longer-term plan for security sector reform. The inability to gain effective civilian control over the military is one factor behind the government’s slow implementation of its other Council commitments. This in turn undermines public confidence, especially among Tamils, in the government’s political will to guarantee justice for all.

Donors should use their leverage to encourage the long hard work of restructuring the military for peacetime duties.

The government should be encouraged to start developing a comprehensive plan for security sector reform. Such a plan should aim to reduce the military’s social, political and economic footprint in the north and east, as well as to include job training, re-employment programs and psycho-social support for demobilised soldiers. Many ex-soldiers are severely traumatised and caught in continued cycles of violence – in the home and on the street, sometimes as hired thugs for politicians. Foreign militaries now working more closely with Sri Lanka should make offers of technical support for security sector reform a central component of their re-engagement. Donors should use their leverage – including the prospect of additional deployments of Sri Lankan troops as UN peacekeepers – to encourage the long hard work of restructuring the military for peacetime duties.

As the past nine months of fitful and partial implementation of last year’s consensus resolution make clear, the political challenges ahead in Sri Lanka are considerable. For there to be a realistic chance of ending the culture of impunity and establishing effective forms of transitional justice, the Human Rights Council and other UN mechanisms will need to remain engaged beyond March 2017. Consideration of Sri Lanka by the Council remains one of the primary factors driving action – as is evident by the flurry of activity in recent weeks.  Member states should begin discussions now about what form continued engagement can take. Among other options, Council members should encourage the Sri Lankan government to invite an expanded presence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose resources in Sri Lanka remain insufficient to meet the many pressing demands.

Sri Lanka’s much-improved engagement with UN agencies and human rights mechanisms is to be welcomed. But it is not enough. What all of Sri Lanka’s communities need and deserve now are tangible changes in legislation and concrete implementation of its international promises and obligations on the ground.