By Jehan Perera –
Instead of readying itself to show that the Tamil people fully enjoy devolved power and equal rights through the Northern Provincial Council as a result of the war’s end, it appears that the government is bracing itself for a showdown with the US-led international community in Geneva in March on the issue of accountability. The US embassy in Colombo has recently put up photographs of the former northern war zone, along with the caption that they show a site where it says hundreds of families were killed by shelling. The government has challenged these statements. Although there was speculation that the government would take this matter up formally with the US embassy, it appears this has not been done. It may be that the sophisticated surveillance methods available to the United States are difficult to dispute. The case for an international investigation will be strengthened in these circumstances.
Instead of dealing with the issues that the US embassy is raising, government leaders have accused the United States of having recommended the use of cluster bombs to attack LTTE positions during the war. As there are international treaties that prohibit the use of such weapons of indiscriminate destruction, this would be to undermine the legitimacy of the US questioning of the Sri Lankan actions in ending its own internal war. This show of defiance by the government will assuredly win it support from within the country who are conscious of international double standards. However, it is not going to be an answer to the international demand for an independent investigation into the last phase of the war. The government will face an uphill task at the next session of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva to make its case against the establishment of an independent investigation.
In March last year the majority of countries in the UN Human Rights Council voted in favour of a resolution that called on the Sri Lankan government to implement the recommendations of the LLRC. To this resolution they also added the need to credibly investigate through an independent investigation mechanism the allegations of civilian casualties and human rights violations in the last phase of the war. In the event of the government’s failure to factually counter the US allegations of large scale civilian casualties, a follow up resolution at the UNHRC that goes beyond the resolution of last March can be expected. So far the government has not come up with a mechanism for a comprehensive look at the past violations of human rights, although there has been interest expressed in a South African style Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, it may be hoped that to the extent the government is able to show that it is implementing the LLRC recommendations, the strength of that resolution can be reduced.
In this context there is a renewed interest in the implementation of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. Last month the government summoned the diplomatic community in the country and gave them a briefing on the implementation of the LLRC. The government’s progress report was largely factual, with many recommendations being listed as completed. The government has produced a progress report of its implementation of the 130 LLRC recommendations it has accepted. Although there are some areas of questionable interpretation, there are many areas of strong implementation of the LLRC report which are extensively documented. These include resettlement, housing and rehabilitation of former LTTE cadres. Although there are pockets of displacement, the big majority of displaced persons have been resettled.
However, there are also some areas of the LLRC report in which hardly anything has been done. These are left as blank spaces in the LLRC progress report. Though fewer in number they are more important in terms of impact. These are the recommendations that relate to governance and are the blank spaces where a report on activities done is concerned. It appears as if nothing has been done with regard to them. In some instances the recommendations with regard to governance were not blank but where government’s responses do not match the recommendations that the LLRC had made. The governmental response to the recommendation that the government should take all steps to prevent harassment and attacks on media personnel and media institutions illustrates this point. The government’s response was to say, “Online complaint system www.slpc.lk has been launched by the Sri Lanka Press Council enabling media personnel to lodge any complaint immediately.” This hi-tech and sophisticated approach can be likened to the icing on the cake, but there has to be a cake first.
The government’s response to the other recommendation of the LLRC in regard to giving priority to the investigation, prosecution and disposal of such cases and properly investigating past instances of such illegal actions was equally beside the point. It said “Draft Code of Ethics has been circulated for public comment.” From these comments it does not appear that the government wishes to go into the issue of killing and assault of many journalists and those working in media institutions, which is why Sri Lanka ranks very low on global indexes of media freedom. The cavalier nature of these responses also suggests that the government feels it can say anything, do anything and still be able to persuade others to accept its logic.
Another area of LLRC recommendations pertain to civilian casualties and missing and detained persons. The government has appointed military bodies to ascertain the circumstances of death and injury. It is not reasonable to expect either the military to self-indict itself or for those who are objective observers to accept that this is a satisfactory way to investigate and ascertain what really happened. The household survey on dead and missing persons and properties that were destroyed is likewise problematic as it only asks those questions from members of the immediate family in order to avoid double counting. But this can mean that those families that were killed in their entirety, as hinted at by the US embassy website, will go uncounted. Again the flaw is too big to be glossed over.
In order to minimize such flaws in governance and in accountability, the LLRC recommended that independent commissions should be set up for police and the public service, and for other state institutions, so that those who lead these institutions will be appointed on a bipartisan basis. But this has not been done. The LLRC also recommended that there should be dialogue between all political parties and especially ethnic minority parties, but this has not happened. The government continues to stick to its model of a Parliamentary Select Committee which all the opposition parties have rejected. Whatever the government does in these circumstances will be seen as biased and will be biased. This is why the LLRC spoke of returning to the Rule of Law and doing away with the Rule of Men. If the system of governance is weak, there is nothing that the government does that can be verified or trusted.
In this context the outlook is bleak to the government to prevail at the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council. The question is whether there is any possibility of the government persuading the majority of countries represented in this body to give it more time. The best option would be for the government to build upon its most positive political action in recent times, which was the establishment of the Northern Provincial Council through elections held to it for the first time in 26 years. If real devolution happens there will be a demonstration of respect for the Rule of Law through the implementation of the 13th Amendment as well as a readiness to address the root cause of the ethnic conflict which was the lack of sharing of power with the ethnic minorities. The complaint of the Northern Provincial Council that it is powerless and cannot deliver benefits to the people should be remedied by the government as the first line of defence to the probes of the international community.