The Sri Lankan government’s unconvincing efforts to demonstrate that it is ready to deal with atrocities committed by both sides during the end of the brutal civil war reached the end of the line last week with the publication of the final report by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).
The Commission, established by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in a bid to stave off international scrutiny, has taken small steps towards exposing a fuller picture of what happened during the gruesome final stages of the conflict. Its report puts to bed outlandish claims made previously by the government that there were no civilian casualties in the war, acknowledges that hospitals were indeed shelled and is critical of disappearances which continue to cause pain and suffering for many Sri Lankan families.
But on the all important question of accountability, the Commission has completely failed to deliver. While conceding individual incidents may require further investigation, the Commission declares itself satisfied that protection of civilians was given ‘the highest priority’ in the military strategy and that civilians were not targeted, thereby ducking the central issue of command responsibility for international crimes that are widely suspected to have occurred. In a move that highlights the unbalanced nature of the report overall, the Commission makes much stronger findings in relation to specific violations of the laws of war and human rights by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
On the fact that the 388-page report makes not a single reference to torture in Sri Lanka, Freedom from Torture CEO, Keith Best, commented:
The remarkable failure to acknowledge at all, let alone address, widespread use of torture by the Sri Lankan authorities – either during or following the conflict – makes a mockery of the Commission’s objective to promote reconciliation by recognising the losses and suffering of the past. Either the Commission has chosen to paper over any testimony of torture that it received, or such testimony was withheld because the Commission lacked the confidence of Sri Lanka’s countless torture survivors and their families.
“As the UN panel of experts pointed out in its report earlier this year, the lack of any victim or witness protection scheme was just one of the Commission’s many structural failings. Either way, the exclusion of torture issues fatally undermines the Commission’s credibility.”
The audacity of this omission is obvious when read against Freedom from Torture’s evidence of ongoing torture and the concerns voiced recently by the UN Committee Against Torture about ‘continued and consistent allegations of widespread use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of suspects in police custody’ and reports suggesting that ‘torture and ill-treatment perpetrated by state actors, both the military and the police, have continued in many parts of the country after the conflict ended in May 2009 and is still occurring in 2011’. The contrast is well demonstrated by comparing the concerns voiced by the UN Committee about allegations of torture and ill-treatment of those detained in military-run internment camps against the findings of the Commission that the authorities should be congratulated for their ‘caring attitude’ towards those detained following the conflict.
Keith Best concluded:
The UK government has insisted that Sri Lanka demonstrate ‘progress’ on accountability for international crimes by the end of 2011. The LLRC report has been issued on the eve of this deadline but there is no getting around the fact that the necessary progress has not been achieved. Accountability remains elusive and robust international action supported by the UK to achieve an ‘independent, comprehensive and credible inquiry’ is now unavoidable. The next session of the UN Human Rights Council provides an opportunity that must not be missed.”