May 19th, 2009 marked the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war; one of the world’s bloodiest and longstanding ethnic conflicts which left parts of the island distraught, devastated and hundreds of thousands of people displaced. Since the end of the war, there have been persistent and desperate calls by human rights activists, NGOs and the international community including the UN, to look into questions of human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appears to be Sri Lanka’s answer.
Almost one year after its initial due date, the LLRC report was made public a few days ago. In its 388 page report, Sri Lanka’s LLRC has admitted to the occurrence of “considerable civilian casualties” in the final phase of the war but falls short of estimating a figure. There is however, it added, an urgent need to address the question of missing people. The report said that specific instances of alleged wrongdoing including the killing of civilians and disappearance of those who had surrendered or been arrested should be investigated. Amidst several recommendations to the Sri Lankan government, the report covers a variety of issues including the ceasefire agreement, security forces operations, human rights, land issues, restitution and reconciliation.
The Canadian Tamil Congress acknowledges the release of the LLRC report but has identified severe shortcomings in its findings. The LLRC conclusions contradict an extensive UN Panel of Experts report which outlined credible allegations that “most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling” during the final months of the armed conflict. It further alleged that the government had shelled civilians in no-fire zones and targeted hospitals in an aggressive manner. While the report acknowledges the shelling of a hospital however, it does not make a conclusion as to who was responsible for the shelling and the considerable civilian casualties resulting from it. It merely dismisses the shelling by stating that the witnesses were unable to specify which party was responsible. However, the LLRC did recommend five incidents of shelling in which government forces were implicated, for further investigation.
The commission seems to have simply overlooked credible allegations that government forces attacked civilians in no fire zones, contrary to the laws of war. It merely reported that “despite the efforts by the Security Forces to avoid harm to people there have been instances of exchanges of fire over the civilian areas including NFZs causing death and injury to civilians.” The LLRC report also failed to examine the use of heavy artillery against civilian areas. While dismissing the allegations that the security forces deliberately target civilians, the LLRC did not look into whether or not these attacks failed to discriminate between civilians and combatants – a finding by the UN panel of experts.
The commission gathered evidence from Tamils, government officials, politicians, civil and religious leaders and former rebels. International human rights groups including International Crisis Group, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, refused to testify before the LLRC, indicating that it was “pro-government, did not have a mandate to investigate abuses and did not meet international standards”.
In fact, in the months leading up to the release of the LLRC report, the commission was widely dismissed by international human rights groups, including Amnesty International, who in a critical report, described the process as “flawed at every level” and severely falling short of international standards.
The Canadian Tamil Congress believes that these perceptions are unlikely to change as the report reveals a strong pro-governmental tone. While there are several accusations directed towards the LTTE throughout the report, the LLRC, seems to have in effect, exonerated the government of any possible wrongdoing. If any such violations actually did occur, according to the report, the commission is of the view that the security forces were “confronted with an unprecedented situation when no other choice was possible and all ‘feasible precautions’ that were practicable in the circumstances had been taken.” Furthermore, in light of evidence that points towards the possible implication of the security forces in the injury or loss of civilian lives, the LLRC maintains that this “may not have been with an intent to cause harm”.
The LLRC report also outlined its serious doubts with respect to the authenticity of Channel 4’s “Killing Fields”, a video that was authenticated by Christof Heyns, the U.N. independent investigator on extrajudicial killings. Despite the findings of an independent UN expert, the commission has maintained that there are troubling technical and forensic questions of a serious nature that cast significant doubts about the authenticity of the video. CTC is extremely disappointed and troubled by the defensive reaction of the Sri Lankan government. Instead of constantly criticizing the authenticity of the video, it encourages the Sri Lankan government to take steps towards identifying the soldiers in the video and investigating their actions.
The findings of the LLRC report, in most cases, do not come as a shock to the international community. The report would have been a good chance for Sri Lanka to have effectively dealt with the allegations on a domestic level and take active steps towards reconciliation. Instead, the Sri Lankan President appointed a commission which in reality, is “flawed at every level: in mandate, composition and practice”. Among the commissioners appointed were former Sri Lankan government officials who have publicly defended the Sri Lankan government against allegations of war crimes in the past. The commission’s mandate also falls short of international standards for such inquiries.
It is clear that the LLRC report provides no realistic way to hold the Sri Lankan government accountable. The LLRC failed to outline ways in which credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity can be investigated. It has further failed to outline meaningful ways of prosecuting these perpetrators. The LLRC report has in effect shifted the weight of the blame fully to the LTTE and has not acknowledged – not even remotely – the Sri Lankan government’s role in the conflict. Of notable consideration is the absence of discussion surrounding the “white flag incident”. The LLRC failed to address the allegations that the government forces executed LTTE leaders who, during the last days of the war, attempted to surrender to the Sri Lankan government.
Although the report may be 388 pages in length, it provides very little new information. The LLRC has failed to address several important issues as noted by several human rights organizations. As noted by Human Rights Watch, the LLRC has failed to discuss sexual violence, torture or ill-treatment of detainees, the detention of 300,000 people who were displaced by the conflict for several months and the denial of due process rights to more than 10,000 alleged LTTE members. The commission has neither investigated nor addressed the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. While the report is full of various recommendations by the commission, these are mere additions to the recommendations of previous commissions appointed by the government – recommendations which have proved to be extremely meaningless.
For the past two years, the Sri Lankan government has effectively used the LLRC as its excuse for lobbying against an independent international investigation. While human rights groups and advocacy organizations like the Canadian Tamil Congress have continuously called for an international probe, several countries have respected Sri Lanka’s sovereignty in hopes that its domestic investigation mechanism will provide meaningful answers. But, a commission which has failed to appropriately investigative credible allegations of systematic violations by both sides to the conflict, is no where close to providing meaningful answers to the people of Sri Lanka.
CTC acknowledges that the commission has outlined various human rights violations in its report but takes issue with the lack of state accountability. This is not surprising given the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka; a culture of impunity which has effectively been blocking any sort of meaningful reconciliation and accountability. It is therefore imperative that the international community comes together to advocate for an international, independent investigation to be launched.
The LLRC report is fraught with severe shortcomings and a strong denial of state accountability. If this inadequate report goes unquestioned, Sri Lanka will be setting a dangerous precedent for countries to follow in the name of “state sovereignty”. Sri Lanka’s war is no longer merely an internal, domestic tragedy. It is a tragedy that has resulted in the deaths, disappearances, injuries and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and a crisis which involved war crimes, crimes against humanity and gross violations of international humanitarian law. This can no longer be a war without witnesses and the cries of the affected people can no longer be silenced – in the name of human rights and justice for all people, the international community MUST step in.