Today the Sri Lankan government is under international pressure on account of alleged war crimes that were committed in the last phase of the war and to be accountable according to international standards. Legal cases against Sri Lankan government representatives have been filed in US and other international courts alleging war crimes and serious human rights violations in the last phase of the country’s war. Human rights organizations maintain that massive violations of human rights and crimes against humanity warrant intervention by the UN.
However it is also pointed out that similar or worse allegations have been made against the Western powers which are waging war in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan but that there is no outcry against them by the UN or in international forums. The UN is unable to assert its independence in relation to the big powers in the Security Council and violations of international standards by them cannot easily be investigated because of the veto power of the Security Council Members and their dominance in world affairs.
In addition, the final phase of the war that saw much suffering and death of civilians was due to the fact that the LTTE used civilians as human shields, which trapped them in increasingly shrinking areas they controlled. Sections of the Tamil Diaspora that supported the LTTE could also have brought pressure on them on behalf civilians held hostage. The final phase of the war was also due to the tacit support to Sri Lanka provided by sections of the international community due to their global war on terror strategies. Accountability needs to take into consideration these realities as well.
Despite the above, as a Sri Lankan civil society organization, the National Peace Council believes that Sri Lanka has obligations towards its own citizens regardless of international behaviour and failures. We believe that there must be a credible process of ascertaining the fate of all people who lost their lives in the long course of the three decades long war, and not only its last phase. It is a basic matter of justice that the affected families should know at least now after a period of over two years after the end of the war what happened to their family members who either disappeared or died in unknown circumstances.
The obligation to investigate and bring to justice those who violate human rights and the humanitarian law is firstly with the State of which these persons are citizens. Accordingly, these matters must be investigated through a credible and transparent process by the Sri Lankan State. This duty has been cast on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission in the first instance.
The State is obliged to uphold human rights and humanitarian laws and hold members of the government and individual soldiers accountable for their violation even if provisions for amnesty are also made available and justifications are provided in the future. A full accounting of what happened in the whole course of our thirty year war would be Sri Lanka’s testament to the international community and to the Sri Lankan people that never again would such a situation be permitted to arise. It is in the case of clear failure on the part of the national authorities that international mechanisms become necessary.
We must probe the past, identify our mistakes and lessons learnt and keep the memory of our past alive in order to transcend it. The Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the government was a right step in this direction and we await its final report next month. The experience of other countries that have gone through similar traumatic experiences, such as South Africa, East Timor, Argentina, Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, and the investigative and truth finding mechanisms they formulated are there to guide us in charting our path in the coming months and years to reconciliation within our country and with the world.
Following the above time tested experiences in a bold and innovative manner would not be compromising the country’s sovereignty. Instead the stage would be set for the true process of reconciliation to commence from all sectors, cultural and religious groups that would deal with the human rights problems raised so far and end the polarisation in our national and international affairs which have marred our expected progress towards rapid peace and development that has evaded us for over 30 years.
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