asserts that “International law is uncompromising in this regard – responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide goes to the very top. In the case of Sri Lanka, the defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the then head of the army, General Sarath Fonseka, and the commander in chief – the president – Mahinda Rajapaksa are principally answerable.”
Full text of the article that appeared in Tamil Guardian Sunday follows:
Now that Sri Lanka’s farcical attempt at accountability – the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report – has finally been published, there can be no more excuses. The LLRC has for too long been the international community’s fig leaf, used by governments across the world, including the US and the UK, to stall calls for accountability and a credible investigation into allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The commission’s inquiry, its findings and its recommendations serve only to further vindicate the overwhelming justification for an independent, international investigation. For the victims, justice is well overdue. The time to act is now.
The LLRC is the by-product of sustained international pressure following the horrific findings of the UN expert panel, and Sri Lanka’s desperation to stave off any meaningful investigation and subsequent discovery of truth. For governments across the world, it has been convenient to support Sri Lanka’s assertion that the LLRC would answer the serious allegations made by the UN expert panel. However, it should come as no surprise that the LLRC report falls far short of this. The international community’s willingness to play along with Sri Lanka’s theatrics has been dismaying and deplorable. It has revealed a shameful disregard for the much preached about doctrine of universal human rights and the proclamation of ‘never again’.
Making a mockery of any serious allegations, the words ‘war crimes’ only feature twice in the entire LLRC report. Never in the main body of the text, ‘war crimes’ only crop up during the citation of other reports by human rights organisations, one on Sri Lanka and the other on Israel. Undoubtedly, the emergence of compelling and damning evidence of atrocities, forced the commission to concede that some violations of human rights did take place. It would have simply been untenable to tow the Sri Lankan government’s long held, official line of zero civilian deaths and maintain even the pretence of credibility. Beyond this meagre admission however, the report dismisses any notion of a ‘systematic’, ‘persecution’ of Tamil civilians by Sri Lanka’s armed forces and the ‘deliberate’ targeting of civilian establishments – key assertions made by the UN expert panel – as untruths.
Criminal responsibility for atrocities is conveniently deflected from those in power. Ignoring the testimonies of a significant number of witnesses that identify a clear chain of command, and thereby command responsibility to crimes, the report urges the prosecution of individual soldiers if found guilty. Even if such witness testimony is negated, the scale of civilian deaths in Sri Lanka could not have taken place without the knowledge of the most senior military officials. International law is uncompromising in this regard – responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide goes to the very top. In the case of Sri Lanka, the defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the then head of the army, General Sarath Fonseka, and the commander in chief – the president – Mahinda Rajapaksa are principally answerable.
The LLRC itself states that Sri Lanka is unable to adequately investigate aspects of the conflict crucial for determining culpability, such as the direction and nature of artillery fire on hospitals. Although inviting international experts would be the logical conclusion of such a finding, the LLRC do nothing more than lament over Sri Lanka’s technical short-comings and proffer the LTTE as an alternative. In the complete absence of reasoning and self-confessed inadequacy of scientific investigation, such a blanket dismissal of government responsibility and guilt, underlines the commission’s partiality, prejudice and flippant attitude towards genuinely investigating all sides.
The commission’s inherent bias in favour of the state and the armed forces is laid bare in its own findings. To the LLRC, the ‘good name’ of the army was not an investigative finding, but a primordial truth, with the commission’s raison d’etre ‘to clear the good name of the Army’. The possibility of Channel 4’s Killing Fields documentary being doctored and thereby tarnishing the army’s reputation is stated to be ‘more serious’ than, as is almost undeniably the case, the footage is prima facie evidence of war crimes. Most abhorrent of all, the commission gives credence to the supposed ‘dilemma’ faced by Sri Lankan Army commanders – to protect civilians or neutralise the enemy.
Ultimately, in Sri Lanka, the impotency of any internal enquiry is a foregone conclusion. The state’s culture of impunity, its catalogue of abandoned commissions and abject failure to meaningfully implement any recommendations of previous commissions is an indisputable truth. That the LLRC was commissioned directly by the ruling regime, to investigate the actions of that regime and its stooges, and present its findings to the ruler, is beyond ridicule.
The government’s brutal clamp down on dissent and suppression of any support for an investigation into allegations of war crimes, brings into question an internal inquiry’s ability to find the truth. Together with the lack of a witness protection programme, the documented overbearing military presence during evidence gathering, and reports of witnesses being photographed and filmed by wanton by-standers, the authenticity of witness statements is irrevocably undermined. When the president has imprisoned the very man who engineered the government’s so called victory, the absolute independence of those running the commission, who were after all appointed by that very same president, is at the very least disputable.
Sri Lanka is already manoeuvring itself to further stalling measures, with the LLRC recommending a myriad of commissions, inquiries and even a ‘household survey’ to examine civilian deaths. If left unchecked such internal inquiries could span months, if not years and still fail to arrive at meaningful accountability or justice – such has been the case for over sixty years.
Fundamentally, in Sri Lanka, any internal inquiry into atrocities against Tamils will fail, not merely due to the lack of judicial independence, technical expertise and political will, but because the majority of Sri Lanka’s citizenry do not desire it. The deaths of over 40,000 civilians are not isolated incidents, devoid of forethought or intention. They constitute a deliberate persecution and targeted destruction of the Tamil nation in the Vanni – a genocide, perpetrated by the armed forces, orchestrated by the government, ignored by the judiciary, whitewashed by the mainstream press, and above all else, mandated by the Sinhala Buddhist majority. Sri Lanka cannot be left to investigate itself.
Only an international, independent investigation can justly examine crimes of such gravity and achieve the accountability and justice needed for any hope of a lasting peace. One failed internal inquiry may have been deemed a necessary formality, but with the release of the LLRC report, the world can no longer hide behind the pretence of protecting state sovereignty. To do so, not only emboldens a government that continues to brutally oppress and violate human rights, but constitutes complicity to the crime. The time to act must be now.