There are indications that the US Government will support a resolution at the forthcoming March session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that, among other things, will call on the Sri Lankan government to implement the recommendations of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is reported to have sent a letter to the government that acknowledged that the final report of the LLRC had made a number of important and positive recommendations for promoting national reconciliation,
such as the withdrawal of armed forces from civilian life in the North and East, the reining in of paramilitaries, strengthening of democratic and civil society institutions, investigation of disappearances and attacks against journalists.
However, she had also reported to have said that the US government was disappointed that a comprehensive action plan has not yet been publicly released and therefore it has decided to sponsor a UN Human Rights Council resolution in March 2012 that will ask for Sri Lanka to take more concrete action towards reconciliation, including on the question of accountability and implementation of LLRC recommendations. It appears that the US is looking to see the government taking concrete actions with respect to reconciliation, accountability and holding of Provincial Council Elections in the North. The recent visit over the past week end of a high powered US government delegation led by US Undersecretary of State Maria Otero and Assistant Secretary Robert Blake would be related to these issues which concern issues of human rights, both past and present.
The visiting US delegation met with government and opposition leaders and civic groups in the course of their stay. They have said they want to be constructive and forward looking, to assist Sri Lanka in moving towards the development, economic prosperity and reconciliation it seeks. It was unfortunate and ironic that on the day they arrived there were reports of another abduction in Colombo itself that reminded the nation at large, and the international community, that the grisly phenomenon of “white van abductions” was still a possibility, and a reality. The police have reported that this appears to be a mere criminal case of abduction by a Tamil gang for ransom. Once processes are unleashed they are very difficult to bring to a halt. This applies both to processes at the international level, such as the war crimes probe against the Sri Lankan government, as well as cases of impunity within the country that damage the government’s credibility.
The Sunday newspapers on the day of the US delegation’s arrival carried an account of a Tamil businessman who had filed a Fundamental Rights case in the Supreme Court and whose case was to be heard the following Monday had been bundled away into a white van by a group of men armed with automatic rifles in the heart of Colombo. The victim had been earlier detained for some two years, on allegations that he was linked to the now defunct Tamil Tigers but was released on September 16 last year for lack of evidence and all the charges were dropped. Subsequently he had filed a Fundamental Rights case in the Supreme Court where senior police officers attached to the Colombo Crime Division (CCD) have been cited as respondents.
One of the strengths of the LLRC report was the manner in which the commissioners made a strenuous effort to put the past behind and take Sri Lanka on to a new path that befits a mature democracy that has triumphed in a protracted internal war that divided both its territory as well as people. The report contains very specific recommendations that the police should be made independent of political interference. In addition the LLRC called for an investigation to take place regarding several cases where there appeared to have been civilian killings, such as the incident at Mutur in the east where 17 aid workers were executed, and also with regard to journalists who were either killed with impunity or disappeared. The problem for the government to reopen these unsolved cases will be obvious, even to the visiting US delegation for they impact upon one of the government’s bases of power, which are the security forces.
But there are other recommendations made by the LLRC that the government can start to immediately implement. One of the most important LLRC recommendations, which was also made in its interim recommendations over a year a half ago, is that of providing a comprehensive list of those who are in government custody. During the period of the thirty year war, and not only its last phase, tens of thousands of people went missing. The relatives of those who went missing continue to live in desperate hope that their loved ones might still be alive, hidden somewhere. There are all sorts of rumours, including rumours of hidden detention centres known only to a chosen few in the government. There may or may not be any factual basis for these rumours. People will also continue to believe that their loved ones are alive until they know they are not.
It is only when there is closure that there can be a restarting of the lives of who have missing and disappeared family members. Such a declaration can also lead to entire communities coming to terms with the past, sorrowing together and finding the strength to move forwards from there. In this situation, the first and most important step for the government to take would be to publicly declare whom they are holding in custody. There may be a lot of sorrow to tens of thousands of families when this declaration is made, and when they find that their loved ones are not on the list, but there will also be closure. Along with providing the list of names of those still living, and by implication, those who no longer are living, the government could also follow another important LLRC recommendation and have a solemn Day of Remembrance for all victims of the war.
Most international governments have been positive about the LLRC report. While they have expressed their reservations about its handling of accountability issues, they have not demanded an international mechanism to probe into the past. Instead they have called for the implementation of the LLRC report in a manner that will correspond to international standards. This is not the position of international human rights organizations which have rejected the LLRC report for being too badly flawed in its findings on accountability and insist on an international mechanism to investigate the past. NGOs are meant to uphold ideals and play a watchdog role so that governments do not stray too far from what they have promised to uphold. On the other hand, politics is the art of the possible, and governments are led by politicians who are practical. Members of international governments can be expected to be more practical in their approach than those who are from non-governmental organizations.
The government’s immediate implementation of at least some of the LLRC recommendations will be decisive as to what type of resolution is presented before the UN Human Rights Council in March. In his Independence Day speech on February 4, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said that the government was working very hard to implement the LLRC recommendations, but he did not explain what these were. For a start the government can announce the setting up of an apex body, ideally comprising several cabinet ministers and chaired by the President himself, that is empowered with executive authority to ensure the implementation of the recommendations. It is almost two years since the Sri Lankan government used the promise of the LLRC as a device for keeping the international human rights pressure on it from growing too acute. It is now the right time for the government to start delivering on the promise that it made.