by Shamindra Ferdinando
Acknowledging that there had been divergent views in respect of having foreign judges in a domestic judicial mechanism to probe alleged war crimes, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera yesterday emphasised that a solution acceptable to the majority of stakeholders could be reached.
Minister Samaraweera said the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) wanted foreign judges on the proposed judicial mechanism whereas others opposed it. But, there could be an alternative, Minister Samaraweera said, adding that consultations were taking place, both here and abroad in that regard.
Jaffna District TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran told Congressional hearing in Washington on June 14 they expected foreign judges as agreed during talks involving the government of Sri Lanka and the US in the run-up to the Geneva sessions last October.
Addressing the media at Foreign Ministry auditorium, Minister Samaraweera said there was no need to act hastily.
The minister stressed that instructions wouldn’t be issued from top to bottom to expedite consensus on post-war reconciliation matters. Instead, there would be consultations leading to an understanding.
The Foreign Ministry called a special media briefing to explain the accountability issue being taken up at the 32 session of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
The minister said there was the possibility of reaching agreement on the accountability mechanism by January, February, 2017.
When the media pointed out that both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had ruled out the participation of foreign judges, Minister Samaraweera said that they could express their opinion. There could be different opinion on this matter though final decision acceptable to the majority of stakeholders would be taken after having examined all options, he noted.
Samaraweera stressed that there couldn’t be a dispute regarding international participation in the proposed mechanisms.
Asked by The Island whether the government would inquire afresh into the primary accusation that approximately 40,000 Tamil civilians perished during the Vanni offensive, Minister Samaraweera castigated the Rajapaksa administration for turning a blind eye to post-war allegations.
Recollecting the UK based Channel 4 News allegations pertaining to the massacre of 40,000 civilians, Minister Samaraweera said that an investigation could have helped Sri Lanka get at the truth. “In fact, we could have declared that such massacres didn’t take place during the Vanni offensive depending on the outcome of the inquiry”, he said.
Minister Samaraweera said that he had publicly urged the then government to solicit the services of foreign forensic experts to verify Channel 4 News footage and then move the British judiciary against the media outfit. But,the government had been scared and launched a domestic process which didn’t address contentious issues, Minister Samaraweera said.
UNSG Ban Ki-moon’s Panel of Experts (PoE) accused the then government of directing indiscriminate artillery and mortar fire at civilians, government hospitals and makeshift medical facilities. The government was also accused of depriving the Vanni civilian population of food and medicine.
Minister Samaraweera emphasised that proper investigation was certainly required to clear the Sri Lankan military of alleged battlefield excesses. Denying that the government had assured the UNHRC the military would be punished, Minister Samaraweera said that the government had co-sponsored Geneva Resolution 30/1 to restore Sri Lanka’s image.
Declaring that the military was disciplined, Minister Samaraweera those who had responsible for atrocities would have to be severely dealt with on the basis of the findings of investigations.
Minister Samaraweera said that the military hadn’t gone on the rampage during the Vanni offensive. He stressed the need to inquire into the culpability on the part of those who had been responsible for commanding troops. The minister said that the command and control structure of the military were far more responsible than those who had carried out directives and therefore a comprehensive investigation was called for.
Commenting on the proposed setting up of Missing Persons Office in accordance with the Geneva Resolution, Minister Samaraweera said that the outfit could inquire into disappearances in the North and East but other areas as well.
He said he believed Sri Lanka couldn’t afford to ignore wartime allegations and pretend that they did not exist.
Minister Samaraweera said that he, too, believed the military hadn’t used cluster munitions during the conflict. However, there was a need to investigate that allegation.
Minister Samaraweera was responding to the presidential commission to investigate complaints regarding missing persons and other alleged wartime atrocities strongly denying the use of such weapons as reported in July 6, 2016 edition of The Island. Minister Samaraweera criticized Chairman of the Commission former High Court judge Maxwell Paranagama for declaring that as the use of cluster ammunition had been banned on August 1, 2010, UNHRC couldn’t have found fault with Sri Lanka even if they had bee used.
Minister Samaraweera alleged that such talk caused suspicions among the minds of the people as regards the conduct of the military.