COLOMBO (IRIN) - The government of Sri Lanka has dismissed widespread criticism of a government-appointed commission to probe “lessons to be learnt from events” in a civil war that led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians and an unknown number of deaths.
“Sadly, their [human rights groups’] technique is to make generalised allegations, with sensational press releases not borne out even in their reports and then avoid any further debate,” ruling party parliamentarian Rajiva Wijesinha told IRIN.
On 14 October, international NGOs Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and International Crisis Group publicly declined the commission’s invitation to testify in ongoing public hearings citing the commission’s failure “to meet basic international standards for independent and impartial inquiries” and “government failure to address impunity and continuing human rights abuses”.
Appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa earlier this year, the eight-member “lessons learnt and reconciliation commission” is accused of being partial to the ruling party, not protecting witnesses and of having an inadequate mandate to investigate war crimes’ allegations.
After six months of such hearings, local civil society is also questioning the commission’s efficacy. “There is little that has surfaced on the manner in which the war was fought or findings about the sufferings inflicted on civilians,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of Colombo-based NGO National Peace Council. There is too much attention on the ceasefire period (2002) rather than the toll of fighting on civilians, or concrete steps to reconciliation, he added.
“The government’s main concern is to block an international probe into the allegations of war crimes,” said Perera. In 2010, the government denied entry to an UN-convened panel of experts sent to examine alleged violations of human rights and humanitarian law in the final stages of a decades-long conflict between the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatists. The government declared the conflict over in May 2009.
The lack of witness protection cripples truth gathering. “Although some families of victims of abuses gave testimonies in [the northern town of] Vavuniya, when senior government officials appeared before the commission, they were not even asked about these reported abuses,” said Ruki Fernando, head of the Human Rights in Conflict Programme at Colombo-based NGO Law & Society Trust.
Under threat of libel and persecution, a “brave few” have testified, according to the three international NGOs questioning the commission’s impartiality.
Basil Fernando, director of Hong-Kong based NGO Asian Human Rights Commission, called the commission’s work propaganda. “What is happening in Sri Lanka is a show, and a poor show at that… [The] denied opportunity to mourn for collective errors and wrongs will hurt all of us,” he said.
Without credible testimony, the war crimes probe is unlikely to go far, he warned.
“The very idea that any Sri Lankan could acknowledge that war crimes might have been committed, despite the fact that they have been reported by a wide range of other sources, is treated as a hanging offence. This approach does not bode well for the prospect of a genuine national inquiry into war crimes any time soon,” the former UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial summary or arbitrary executions who served until July 2010, Philip Aston, told IRIN.
But this “obsession” with war crimes can prevent the country from moving forward, said government member Wijesinha. “The concern to [settle the score], instead of dealing positively with the issue of reconciliation, is indicative of a mindset that simply will not recognise current realities in Sri Lanka, and the need to move forward.”
The commission’s secretary, S.B. Atugoda, defended the group’s integrity, independence and impartiality, saying that it must “in all fairness be judged by the performance of the commission and not on the basis of pre-conceived notions.”