By Namini Wijedasa
The Tamil diaspora is likely to be livid. International human rights groups like Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group and Amnesty International will not be happy. And this certainly was not what Navi Pillai, the UN high commissioner for human rights, had hoped for.
Nevertheless, the Sri Lanka Government seems to have pulled it off–if the public statements of several visiting envoys last week are to be believed, an international war crimes investigation is off the cards for now.
Proof of the pudding
The main reason for this is the appointment of a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. While this commission is derided by critics as a dud, an inevitable failure and a feeble exercise to buy time, members of the international community seem increasingly inclined to evaluate rather than to condemn outright. “After all,” said a US official last week, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating."
Calls for an international body to probe alleged war crimes are being replaced by a willingness to let the LLRC do its work first. Despite unflinching evidence that commissions of inquiry in Sri Lanka have been nothing more than temporary measures to deflect attention, three sets of foreign envoys last week laid emphasis on domestic accountability mechanisms over external ones.
This may partly be due to the government’s recent efficacy in convincing the international community of its good faith in setting up the commission. With the war–and elections-over, the Rajapaksa regime has toned down its rhetoric and has embarked on a mission of engagement. And one subject, the government has been irrevocably clear: They will not allow for or participate in an international investigation into domestic affairs. In the face of such obduracy, the international community, too, has been forced to engage.
Visiting the country last week were Japanese envoy Yasushi Akashi; UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe; Special Assistant to President Barack Obama on Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights Samantha Power; and Obama’s National Security Council Director for War Crimes and Atrocities David Pressman.
Akashi made Japan’s position on war crimes allegations clear on Monday, in comments to media after his meeting with External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris. The international community should not dwell on the past, he said. If there were reasonable allegations that international norms of combat were violated, it was for Sri Lanka to define the precise role of an inquiry. “It is not for other governments or international organizations to dictate to Sri Lanka what it should be doing in this highly complicated and sensitive area,” he said.
Lynn Pascoe’s visit to Sri Lanka had been in the pipeline for some months. At the UN headquarters in New York, journalists grilled Ban Ki-moon’s spokespersons about reports that Sri Lanka was deliberately blocking Pascoe’s trip. But at a press conference on Thursday, Pascoe showed no signs of tension with the government. He said he was “very impressed” by the government’s efforts to provide basic facilities for the internally displaced and showed appreciation for the difficult task Sri Lanka faced in recovering from the trauma of a 25-year-old war.
Pascoe confirmed during the question-and-answer session that Ban Ki-moon will set up a panel next week to advise him on international standards and comparative experiences with accountability. He said it will also be available as a resource Sri Lankans can turn to. He indicated that the panel’s members would have a broad mandate. The indication was that the panel would be more of a body that Sri Lanka could rely on for assistance rather than one that would query the military’s actions during the final stages of the war.
In Pascoe’s own words last week, there have been “many misunderstandings about what the panel will do”. He said there was “no cause for concern” and that it would be “very useful for the government”. So much for Ban Ki-moon’s sensational panel.
Meanwhile, Pascoe, when questioned about Sarath Fonseka’s detention, emphasised that it was an internal matter that should be left to the Sri Lankan legal system. This, it is understood, is also the position of the US which is now placing great emphasis on domestic process.
President makes pledges
The visiting US envoys, like Pascoe and Akashi, had a long week of travel and meetings that involved stops in the North and East. During discussions with government officials, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Power and Pressman reportedly stressed that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was an important tool in moving forward. Their position was that there must be closure for those civilians who had suffered loss and injury in the war–and the LLRC would provide the means by which such closure could be achieved.
In reply to several concerns raised emphatically by Power and Pressman, President Rajapaksa made several pledges. He assured them, for instance, that there would be an investigation into alleged war crimes and that there would be criminal accountability, official US sources said. In other words, those found guilty of wrongdoing would be punished. He said the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission would be made public. He also promised that the ICRC would be given access to Tamil detainees.
It is learnt that Power and Pressman during their trips to the North and East were repeatedly struck by the sense of fear among the civilian population. This prompted them to raise concerns about witness protection with President Rajapaksa. The US sources said Power and Pressman had stressed to the president that it was important to ensure there were no reprisals against anyone for testifying before the LLRC. (Significantly, draft legislation related to witness protection is still in limbo despite the government promising to have it passed during the tenure of the short-lived Commission of Inquiry into 15 allegations of human rights and international humanitarian law).
The US delegation’s final position was that they were encouraged by the president’s promises but that only time will tell if these pledges are kept.
The international community now seems to be moving in a direction that supports Sri Lanka’s own post-war aspirations. This has led some analysts to scrutinise whether the “China dynamic” is at play.
The US is eager to further relations with Sri Lanka on the basis of “mutual interest”. This includes maritime cooperation. India is recently more interested in showing greater presence (either way) in Sri Lanka. This is reflected also in requests to open deputy high commissions in other parts of the country. There is realisation that Sri Lanka, with its strategic position in the Indian Ocean, will readily move towards so-called rogue nations if its Western friends keep berating the government.
And in the meantime, China is moving in fast
As confirmed by UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe, a panel to advise UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on accountability for potential war crimes in Sri Lanka is likely to be named next week. The Sri Lanka Government continues to oppose the appointment of this panel. LAKBIMAnEWS reliably learns that the panel will consist of a member from Indonesia and one from Austria. The announcement is expected to follow Pascoe’s return from Sri Lanka. It is also learnt that the Indonesian member is Marzuki Darusman, former attorney-general of Indonesia who was also on the panel to investigate the assassination of former Pakistani premier, Benazir Bhutto.
Interestingly, Darusman was also a member of the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) that was composed to assist the farcical Commission of Inquiry set up under Justice Nissanka Udalagama to probe 15 serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka. The Austrian has not yet been identified to media.
Human rights activists like Rajan Hoole welcome some form of international pressure on Sri Lanka “to ensure that the truth of what innocent civilians suffered as the result of the actions and designs of both sides is placed on public record”. In his own words:
“The very fact that an international war crimes tribunal is widely discussed, should make each one of us ask why this virtual reprimand? It is of no use blaming the rest of the world or the LTTE. It is a by-product of this country’s post independence political legacy. It is a statement of the fact that the country drove itself into creeping anarchy by repeatedly spurning opportunities to put its house in order.
“Unfortunately, the latest commission to go into Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation underlines the problem of credibility. The earlier commission that drew much attention was the one appointed by the president to go into several cases of impunity, including the ACF (Action Contre la Faim) killings. That too was an opportunity mislaid.
The ACF hearing was largely directed under the former attorney general, the chairman of the new commission. That commission never revealed the truth. An extract from its leaked alleged report, contrary to the best indications, blamed the LTTE and in our (UTHR-J) documentation we have shown that the AG’s role was to suppress the truth. A study of the ACF case and how the state behaved would reveal most of the lessons important for the Sinhalese.
“UTHR-J documentation reveals frankly the LTTE’s culpability for turning several opportunities for peace into very destructive wars. There is a crying need for the Tamils to make a frank assessment of the LTTE’s legacy and put it behind us. But this new commission is not the place where Tamils could speak frankly with a good conscience, against the well-founded suspicion that, like in the ACF case, it would not do them justice and instead all they say would be misused to shift the blame from the state.
“I feel hesitant to talk about an international war crimes tribunal. But for any reconciliation the truth must be placed firmly on record and we must be grateful for any international effort to this end–humbly acknowledging that we have failed and have shown no real desire to succeed. We are the cause of making our sovereignty an object of ridicule.
“International norms and measures to deal with questions of justice came through recognition of past collective failures involving several nation states–nothing aimed at us. If we recognise that the future of this planet is our collective responsibility, we should have the courage and foresight to use international mechanisms for our own good. Xenophobic abuse would only confirm us in our perdition.” ~ courtesy: Lakbima News ~