The initial reaction to the long awaited report of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission from the international human rights organizations was one of rejection. They expressed their lack of satisfaction with the commission’s findings, some even going to the extent of calling it a white wash’.
Their response would have been shaped by the circumstances of the LLRC’s appointment in May 2010 in the aftermath of the report of the advisory panel appointed by the UN Secretary General to investigate alleged human rights violations and war crimes in the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war.
The Sri Lankan government’s appointment of the LLRC was seen in the light of the UN report and the need for a governmental response. The government also repeatedly defended itself against the allegations in the UN panel report by stating that they would be answered by the LLRC.
However, the mandate of the Commission would show that there were no specific references that it should indeed probe such allegations. The Commission was also not provided with the investigatory mechanism to undertake such a probe. It was clear that the Sri Lankan government leadership, confident after its crushing victory over the hitherto invincible LTTE, would not pursue the theme of war crimes to its own detriment either as reparation for offences committed or in response to international demands.
As revealed by Wikileaks in one of its more famous Sri Lankan disclosures, US Ambassador Patricia Butenis had penned a memo to her government to the effect that it was not reasonable to expect a sitting government to self-indict itself.
The US ambassador’s observation was an expression of common sense, especially at a time when the government in question was riding on crest of public popularity. In the circumstances, it is no cause for surprise that the response of human rights organizations to the LLRC report should be critical and rejectionist.
Their focus was on accountability for the multiple tragedies that occurred in the course of the war, especially its brutal end phase and their target has been the government leadership that ran the war machine. The LLRC was not the mechanism to provide the answer they were looking for as they themselves pointed out at the very outset of the establishment of the Commission when they refused to engage with it at all.
The initial muted public response from Sri Lanka’s political parties is also significant. The country’s main opposition party has been engaged in a seeming fight to the death within itself. The leadership struggle within the UNP has a reached a peak with a bitterly contested internal party election to take place shortly.
It is perhaps inevitable that it in this context the best response that its leadership can come up with it is to make observations like the curate who was given a stale egg by his bishop and declared that parts of it were excellent. But, what is more significant is the silence from the ranks of those extreme nationalist parties that have been dominating the national discourse in the aftermath of the war with the encouragement of the top government leadership. When they made their presentations before the LLRC the nationalist media gave them maximum coverage.
The LLRC undoubtedly faced a difficult task. The commissioners were appointed in the shadow of the controversial end to the thirty year war that had plagued the country and brought massive suffering and loss to its people. On the one hand, the end of the war had brought with it the charges of large scale human rights violations and war crimes that some were insisting amounted to genocide.
On the other hand, there was palpable relief in nearly all of the country except perhaps in those places where the last battles were fought, that the war had finally ended and with it the terrorism, counter terrorism and bombings that had spanned most of the previous three decades. The commissioners themselves spent several months meeting people, amounting to over a thousand, and documenting what they had to say, and coming face to face with those who had been victims of the war.
Leading Sri Lankan intellectuals and think tanks also came before the Commission to give it their opinions from opposing perspectives, which they each would have believed to contain the better part of the truth. The biggest challenge to the commissioners would have been to decide whether or not to accept the assurances of the government that had appointed them.
In their report the commissioners made a fundamental concession to the government. They accepted the government’s position that “the military strategy that was adopted to secure the LTTE-held areas was one that was carefully conceived, in which the protection of the civilian population was given the highest priority.”
Whatever are the stated ideals in the conduct of the war, the reality was bound to be different. This is why war is the last option to the wise and when a government decides to engage in it, the highest priority invariably becomes the defeat of the enemy. In the context of a fight to the death it is very difficult to find out after the event what really happened and why it happened the way it did.
The observation made by the LLRC with regard to the difficulty in ascertaining what really happened in the heat of battle may explain why the US and Pakistan are at loggerheads over the recent incident that led to the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by US air power over a period of about four hours.
The LLRC report notes that “in determining questions of state responsibility in respect of death, injury or property damage in the course of military operations, international tribunals referring to doctrinal authorities have described as ‘next to impossible’ the obtaining of a reconstruction in front of a tribunal of all the conditions under which the ‘combat action’ took place with adequate reporting of all accompanying circumstances.”
It is surely because of this difficulty in ascertaining the truth, and accepting the Pakistani version which its government and people are unified in asserting, that the US government has so far refused to apologise for the incident and is insisting that a proper inquiry be carried out in order to ascertain what really happened.
The government position has always been that the LTTE used any civilian installation as cover to attack and provoke the Sri Lankan forces, and it is established that they held virtually the entire civilians population hostage as human shields. Nevertheless the LLRC has called for inquiries into these incidents that would grant redress to victims and instill confidence in the reconciliation process.
In the case of the Channel 4 video which provided footage of apparent battlefield executions of prisoners and of possibly raped and executed women prisoners, the LLRC has called for an independent investigation.
It has urged those who provided the original images and the broadcasting organization to extend their fullest cooperation so that the investigation can be successful. In the event of the video being proved to be giving an authentic account of what transpired on the battlefield, it has also called for the “the investigation and prosecution of offenders, as these are clearly illegal acts.”
From an international human rights point of view the most critical issue facing Sri Lanka seems to be that of human rights violations and war crimes and fixing the responsibility on the government leadership. However, from a Sri Lankan point of view the more important issue would be addressing the root cause of the war and issues of good governance.
It is unfortunate that on numerous occasions after the end of the war, government leaders have said that with the end of the war has come peace, and with peace what is needed is economic development and nothing more. When pressed regarding a political solution, the response of government leaders has been that with the demise of the LTTE such a reform is not necessary. In this context, the LLRC report reflects a shift of thinking that calls for a break with past if Sri Lanka is to learn its lessons well and achieve reconciliation between its people of diverse communities.
It is on the issue of a political solution that would address Tamil grievances that the LLRC has made its most commendable stand which places it in a different frame of thought as compared to what the present government leadership in particular has been asserting. The failure of the main political parties to offer an acceptable political solution to the Tamil people that would address their grievances and the failure of the Tamil political parties to distance themselves from the extremist positions and conduct of the LTTE are realities of the past that need to be overcome.
The LLRC placed the blame for war on both the Sinhalese and Tamil political leaderships of the past. It stated that “The conflict could have been avoided had the Southern political leaders of the two main political parties acted in the national interest and forged consensus between them to offer an acceptable solution to the Tamil people. Tamil political leaders were equally responsible for this conflict which could have been avoided had the Tamil leaders refrained from promoting an armed campaign towards secession, acquiescing in the violence and the terrorist methods used by the LTTE against both the Sinhala and Tamil people”
The Commission also states that “leaders of all sides should reach out to each other in humility and make a joint declaration, extending an apology to innocent citizens who fell victim to this conflict, as a result of the collective failure of the political leadership on all sides to prevent such a conflict from emerging.” They also call for an outlawing of ‘hate speech’ that led to communal disharmony and urged religious leaders and civil society to work towards forgiveness, compassion, reconciliation and healing.
Much of what the LLRC is says is not new and it has been said in different ways over the entirety of the conflict, sometimes by leaders of government most notably by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, under whose watch the last peace process took place. Indeed, the thoughts and ideas that the LLRC report expresses came from Sri Lankans who made their submissions before it, but whose voice has been drowned out in the nationalism of the post war period.
The LLRC has taken this collective experience and insight and reaffirmed it at a time when the country has been going on the wrong track in seeking to rebuild post-war Sri Lanka while simultaneously retaining and even strengthening the institutions and practices of the war period. The LLRC report reflects a shift of thinking that calls for a break with that past if Sri Lanka is to learn its lessons well and achieve reconciliation between its people of diverse communities