By M.S.M. Ayub
Three International Non-governmental Organizations (INGOs), namely the London-based Amnesty International (AI), the Brussels-based International Crisis group (ICG) and the New York-based Human rights Watch (HRW) had earlier this month rejected an invitation by the Lessons Learnt and reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to testify before it.
The INGOs have in their joint letter to the LLRC on October 14 cited many serious matters to justify their refusal to be present before the Commission. Their reasons include the inadequate mandate of the Commission, its lack of independence, the lack of witness protection and the failure of past commissions.
Responding to the three INGOs, LLRC secretary SB Atugoda had written to them saying that the independence and impartiality of the Commission must be judged by the performance of the Commission and not on the basis of pre-conceived notions.
The refusal by these powerful international bodies that are working in the field of human rights is definitely a setback for the Sri Lankan government, as these INGOs are in a way supposed to be opinion makers among the international community. However, their action this time would not be left without questions being asked.
The letter sent by the three rights groups contains matters that the government should take serious note of. If these organizations are so insignificant that their refusal to appear before the LLRC could be treated with contempt the LLRC would not have extended an invitation to them. Therefore the government and the LLRC are burdened with the responsibility of disproving the perception of these groups that the Commission is equipped with an inadequate mandate, lack of independence and lack of witness protection.
However, the past commission failures cited by the three INGOs were an irrefutable fact. Starting from the “missing persons commission” appointed by President Premadasa to the Commission on Mutur killings appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the human rights field and from the Round Table Conference convened by President JR Jayewardene in 1984 to the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) appointed by President Rajapaksa in 2006 in the political field, all commissions and committees have been an utter flop, wasting millions of rupees of public funds.
The rights groups also have cited in their letter the past acts and comments by the members of the Commission, in their official capacity, which is a serious indictment against the LLRC process. This was exactly what the Sri Lankan government did when the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed a panel to advice him on the Sri Lankan human rights situation.
Government leaders too can shoot back with the same ammunition, since some heads of these three INGOs had been cynical of the LLRC even before it was officially announced. Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW in a statement on May 7 eight days prior to the appointment of the LLRC said that “the Sri Lankan government's suggestion that a newly announced commission will provide accountability for laws-of-war violations during the armed conflict with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is yet another attempt to deflect an independent international investigation”… Every time the international community raises the issue of accountability, Sri Lanka establishes a commission that takes a long time to achieve nothing."
It is not clear as to how fair it is to conclude that the Commission to be appointed in a week would be a flawed process, even if the prediction would be proven correct later.
The very letter by the rights groups has said that the Commission has “allowed government officials to repeat unchallenged what they have been saying without a basis for months that the government strictly followed a “zero civilian casualty policy.
The contention cannot be contested by the proceedings of the Commission so far. However, the evidence given by the relatives of LTTE leaders which were highly unfavourable to the Government too went unchallenged.
The best case in point was the evidence given by the wife of Elilan -- the LTTE leader in the Trincomalee district who was accused of triggering the final war at Mavilaru. She told the LLRC that the whereabouts of many high ranking LTTE leaders who surrendered to the security forces were not known. Her statement had not been challenged so far at the LLRC.
However, if the three INGOs are of the view that “Commission has allowed government officials to repeat unchallenged what they have been saying without basis” one may prefer to question them as to why they should not challenge those officials at the very same forum. They seem to fear that their presence would lend legitimacy to the Commission and thus vindicate it.