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The LLRC report and ‘accountability’ in Sri Lanka

Gibson Bateman
 Readers will find no big surprises after reading the final report of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).  It is very much what most people were expecting. A document that looks to the future, exonerates the military, does not touch on the question of accountability and includes some touchy-feely language about the country’s need to move forward, celebrate its diversity and be grateful for the defeat of terrorism.

Essentially, all civilian casualties were the result of people caught in the crossfire or were the LTTE’s fault. “The protection of the civilian population was given the highest priority” by the Sri Lankan armed forces, the Commission has determined. The report also claims that military operations moved at a “deliberately slow” pace because Sri Lanka’s military personnel were so careful and cognizant of the dangers to civilian life during the final phases of the conflict.

While the LTTE deliberately targeted civilians, it appears that Sri Lanka’s military did not, according to the LLRC report. That assertion goes against what most people seem to think, including the report produced by the United Nation’s Panel of Experts. In order to determine “questions of State responsibility,” the LLRC report goes on to note that an “international tribunal” would be unhelpful because there just is not enough evidence about what actually happened during the final phase of the conflict. Essentially, it would be nearly impossible to “re-create” what actually occurred in a court of law. The Commission found that it was just too challenging to give even an estimate of civilian casualties during the end of the war.

The Commission also found it difficult to determine what happened regarding the shelling of hospitals. Although, it is clear to the Commission that Sri Lankan military personnel never intentionally went after civilians in the No Fire Zones(NFZs) either.

The report talks about remuneration for victims/survivors, especially civilians. Again, this is not a big surprise either. Most people thought that the LLRC Report would recommend that the government “throw some money” at a few people.

Although, the responsible entity for doing so, the Rehabilitation of Persons, Properties and Industries Authority (REPPIA) is currently suffering from a lack of funds so it is uncertain how that will play out in the years to come.

The Commission’s analysis of the current challenges facing Sri Lanka appears to be slightly more realistic than the rest of the report. Land issues, minority rights and the possibility that militarization in the North might be a bit too much are all mentioned. And yet “The Commission however recognizes the fact that considering the protracted nature of the conflict spanning a period of thirty years, resolving all such issues would naturally take time and require significant resources and financing.”

So, Sri Lankans and the international community must be patient, of course. Wait, wait, wait—there is always something to wait for in the pursuit of accountability in Sri Lanka. And of course the Commission has found that the most responsible way to approach accountability and the pursuit of national reconciliation would be to establish some additional “independent” bodies to help achieve this. The Commission has even suggested that the Sri Lankan government conduct an investigation to ascertain the veracity of the Channel 4 documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.” Evidently, authentication by United Nations specialists is insufficient. While the video does contain certain inaccuracies, it still provides credible evidence that widespread violations of human rights and international law were committed by Sri Lankan military personnel.

There is some fluffy prose about promoting a trilingual Sri Lanka and finding a political solution to address the long-term grievances of the Tamil people. Sri Lanka is still loaded with ethnic tension. Does anyone really believe that a “trilingual Sri Lanka” in the next ten years is a feasible goal?

So, the question is not whether or not the LLRC is insufficient. (It is obviously a weak report, and, in some ways, undoubtedly weaker than what even the most pessimistic people were expecting). The question is whether people sitting in Western capitals (like the US, UK and Canada) who were demanding “accountability” are going say that this report is good enough.

Was the statement made by US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, a genuine articulation of US policy that the Obama administration will pursue aggressively? How hard will the US and other countries push Sri Lanka on the question of accountability over the next twelve months? Does Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper really care about accountability in Sri Lanka? (Or does he just care that Tamil Canadians think it is important to him).

Many people were waiting for the publication of this report. Sri Lanka, the UN’s Panel of Experts report and the LLRC should be topics of enormous interest at the Human Rights Council’s 19th session in Geneva this March.

It is unclear how events will unfold early next year in Washington, New York, Geneva, London, Ottawa and elsewhere. It would be nice to see a country from the Global South speak out strongly against the LLRC report as well.

What is clear is that if President Rajapaksa is able to get through the next two cycles of the Human Rights Council unscathed, accountability and the idea of an international mechanism will become afterthoughts.

Sri Lanka is currently struggling with numerous problems related to human rights, media freedom, governance and national reconciliation, which the current regime shows no interest in resolving. Yet a balanced, accurate recounting of what actually transpired at the end of the war is vital. Human Rights Watch has already come out with a strong statement condemning the report and others from international organizations will inevitably follow.

It is hard to imagine that a reasonable person (who has been following events in Sri Lanka closely) could buy “the story” that is the LLRC. But if other countries are placated by this biased, inaccurate and disappointing report loaded with lacunae, it will be incumbent upon Sri Lankan citizens and civil society leaders to demand more transparency and better governance from their politicians.

International mechanisms and should never be the first option when it comes to accountability, in Sri Lanka or anywhere else. Yet, it has become increasingly clear that Sri Lanka’s domestic institutions are inadequate—particularly as it relates to the rule of law, the judiciary, media freedom and the protection of individual liberties. There is some skepticism about how much consensus could be garnered at the Human Rights Council, as is the case with any multilateral body.

Irrespective of how the Commission was formed, or how biased the Commission might be, President Rajapaksa was given a chance (and rightfully so) to prove that Sri Lanka was capable of looking into credible allegations of war crimes in 2009. People waited patiently for the LLRC to produce its final report.

The production of a mediocre report would have at least given the Sri Lankan government a chance to make a “decent” argument in with foreign governments, in Geneva and other in other international forums. Yet the LLRC is painfully inadequate, especially when it comes to the veneration of the armed forces and the Commission’s inordinately generic and general comments about the behavior of Sri Lankan military personnel at the conclusion of the war.

The publication of the LLRC report is one more sign that Rajapaksa’s regime thinks it can do whatever it wants and face no consequences for its actions.

There is a good chance that the regime is right.

It will take significant political will, leadership and courage if Rajapaksa’s regime is going to be held accountable at the UN’s Human Rights Council, or anywhere else. The US government has just come out and said that they have some serious concerns about the report.[1] “Concern” is one thing, real action is another.

US State Department Spokesman Nuland’s recent statement not only decries the fact that the report is insufficient. She goes on to say that, in addition to fulfilling all of the recommendations in the LLRC report, the Sri Lankan government should deal with the issues (and there are many) that the report did not include.

It is hard imagine that the Rajapaksa regime will comply with this request with alacrity, if it does at all. If other influential governments come out with similar or far more critical responses to the LLRC, it will be interesting to see how the Sri Lanka government will respond. Of course, sovereignty will lie at the heart of their defense, but they will need a more nuanced riposte than that. Rajapaksa’s regime has proven itself to be extremely effective when it comes to consistent, coherent messaging and the manipulation of high-level diplomatic visits in Sri Lanka.

Yet, one would hope that the efficacy of the tactics and strategy that they have used quite well in the past would wane with the publication of this underwhelming report.

Nuland’s comments are an encouraging sign. Hopefully, they will be followed by concrete action by Washington and many others, including those Sri Lankans who have already suffered so much and deserve a better, impartial, more detailed account of what actually happened in April and May of 2009.

[Editors note: A version of this article first appears in the Journal of Foreign Relations.]


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