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SRI LANKA: Calls mount for government action on war inquiry

As the government of Sri Lanka comes under increasing international pressure to implement recommendations submitted by a presidentially appointed war commission, IRIN asked national analysts which recommendations were most easily achievable.

International human rights groups and, until recently, several governments, including the UK, US and Australia, widely criticized the lack of accountability in the report by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).

The commission set out in May 2010 to investigate the final phase of fighting between 2002 and May 2009, when the government declared victory over the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Critics called for an independent inquiry, denouncing the report for ignoring alleged human rights abuses, an issue also raised in the Report of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka.

But weeks before the next UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva and nearly three months after the LLRC submitted its final report to the president on 20 November 2011, the US is calling for a resolution to prod Sri Lanka’s government to act on the recommendations.

“While it has shortcomings on accountability, the commission addressed a number of crucial areas of concern to Sri Lankans and made substantive recommendations on reconciliation,” said US Assistant Secretary Robert Blake at a recent meeting in Colombo.

Where to start

Jehan Perera, executive director of the Colombo-based National Peace Council, told IRIN he felt the release of a full list of detainees in government custody was the most important and “easiest to implement” of the dozens of recommendations.

Thousands of prisoners who went missing during the war remain unaccounted for, some of whom have been missing for more than two decades, he added. “If such a list were out, it would bring closure to a lot of families.”

Ruki Fernando, head of the human rights in conflict programme at the local NGO, Law and Society Trust (LST), picked a day of commemoration for those who lost their lives. “A number of recommendations by the LLRC have the potential to build trust amongst communities,” he said.

Other provisions he highlighted include the de-militarization and establishment of full civilian administration in the former conflict hotspot northern region; financial compensation for all survivors, or those who lost lives, limbs and possibly also property, according to the report; addressing disappearances; ensuring access to places of religious worship, including those in high security zones; and the use of both Sinhala and Tamil – the respective major languages for the former warring sides – for the national anthem.

Assistant Secretary Blake said the LLRC recommendations on devolution of authority, demilitarization, rule of law, media freedom, disappearances and human rights violations and abuses, “if implemented, could contribute to genuine reconciliation and strengthening democratic institutions and practices”.

Game changer

Attention is shifting from forcing an international investigation to encouraging implementation of the recommendations because they are, at least, a starting point for reconciliation, say local activists.

The longstanding problem, said LST’s Fernando, was that the Sri Lankan government had steadfastly refused to cooperate with any international mechanism to move past war.

“The report offers an opportunity to move forward. Now it is up to the government to show it is committed to do that,” said Perera.

But Fernando was pessimistic.

“Looking at the scorecard after the LLRC report is not encouraging – there have been at least 22 abductions reported after the LLRC report [was released]; bodies are found in Colombo; peaceful campaigns [to locate the missing] in the north were obstructed in December and January; a protester was killed and others injured even last week in Chilaw [North Western Province),” he said.

Army inquiry

Two days after the US expressed its support for a resolution, the national army announced its appointment of a five-member panel to investigate whether troops executed prisoners and killed civilians during the final phase of fighting.

Human Rights Watch criticized the panel as a “transparent ploy to deflect a global push for a genuine international investigation, not a sudden inspiration nearly three years after the war”.

The Attorney-General has also announced it is conducting follow-up interviews with witnesses who provided LLRC testimony to gather more information for further examination.

The UN Human Rights Council session is scheduled for 27 February to 23 March.


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