By Alan Keenan
Masters of prevarication, the Sri Lankan Government is once again stalling the UN’s attempt to ensure an open assessment of the brutal final stages of the country’s civil war.
The regime is probably hoping interest will fade, but every day it refuses a fair examination of some 40,000 civilian deaths is another small step away from reconciliation between the Sinhalese-dominated state and Tamils, and toward the next ethnic conflict.
Colombo’s contempt for the international community seems to know no bounds. Six months after the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) requested that Sri Lanka address its culture of impunity and badly damaged rule of law, the regime has taken no concrete action.
The HRC’s March resolution on ‘Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka’ requested the government ‘address alleged violations of international law’. It also called on the country to prepare a ‘comprehensive action plan detailing the steps that the Government has taken and will take to implement the recommendations’ of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), the Government-appointed body that looked into the military’s crimes at the end of the war.
The Sri Lankan Government’s recently announced ‘national action plan’ purports to implement the LLRC’s recommendations, but in fact, it rejects that commission’s central finding: the need to initiate independent investigations and restore the independence of the judiciary, police and other public bodies.
The action plan proposes only flawed inquiries into alleged war crimes and other serious human rights violations, generally relying on the very institutions accused: the police and the military. It does nothing to establish independent institutions able to hold to account state agencies, President Rajapaksa (pictured) and his family, or the increasingly powerful military.
For example, where the LLRC recommends establishing ‘an independent permanent Police Commission…empowered to monitor the performance of the Police Service and ensure that all Police officers act independently’, the action plan simply claims that an ‘Independent Police Commission has already been established’. This flies in the face of the LLRC’s findings and the 18th amendment to the constitution, adopted in September 2010, which removed many of the Commission’s powers and gave the president the job of appointing all its members.
The action plan rejects the LLRC’s call for an ‘independent’ analysis of the well-known Channel 4 video to ‘establish the truth or otherwise’ of the executions of naked and bound prisoners it appears to depict. The action plan promises only to ‘assess the current processes being pursued…by the Army’ and names the defence ministry and the presidential secretariat as the ‘key responsible agencies’ to ‘take follow up action as appropriate’.
As for all the other ‘vast number of credible allegations’ of war crimes cited by a UN panel of experts, the ‘action plan’ promises only that the military will ‘complete ongoing disciplinary process being conducted in terms of Armed Forces statutes’ and ‘upon conclusion, take follow up action to prosecute, where relevant’. No information has been released about which incidents or military personnel may be under investigation. The Government gives itself five years to complete the process.
Sri Lanka’s human rights problems did not end with the war either. There have been scores of disappearances and political killings even since the LLRC report in December 2011, and prospects for reconciliation are further away than ever.
Despite Government claims to have reduced the role of the military in the Tamil-majority north and east (a key demand of the HRC resolution) reports from the ground confirm continued military control over virtually all aspects of life. By refusing to restart negotiations with the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), or allow elections to the northern provincial council, the Government is fueling anger among Tamils and weakening support for the TNA’s moderate, pro-engagement approach.
The international community, especially member states of the Human Rights Council, must now demand action, not action plans. Sri Lankans of all ethnicities need independent and effective bodies to investigate the many serious human rights violations they have endured during the war and in the years since.
They need independent police, judges and prosecutors, freed from the control of the president and the ministry of defence. Provincial council elections and demilitarisation in the north are crucial first steps to sustainable peace, and international development institutions, including the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, should condition assistance on both processes.
(Alan Keenan is Sri Lanka Project Director at the International Crisis Group.)