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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Whither domestic probe on war crimes?

[Photo: rebel fighters ? in military custody later killed]

Another area where the UPFA Government has gone into a state of denial is the widening of the scope of the three-member Commission on Disappearances. Although the terms of reference of the Commission, among others to probe alleged war crimes, are contained in a proclamation issued by President Rajapaksa on July 15, the Government has remained silent on the appointment of the three foreign nationals to an Advisory Council with plans to appoint more. Since they are only in an advisory capacity and are to be paid by the Government, it is logical that they would guide the Commission that will conduct the domestic inquiry into alleged war crimes. Yet, no explanation has so far been made over this Advisory Council.

Other than the publication of the presidential proclamation in a Gazette notification, UPFA Government leaders have neither made any remarks explaining the reasons for the proclamation nor issued any statements. The only aspect that is clear is the widening of the Commission’s terms of reference. The trio in the Advisory Council are Sir Desmond de Silva, QC, Sir Geoffrey Nice, QC and Professor David Crane. Maxwell Paranagama, Chairman of the Commission on Disappearances told the Sunday Times: “Following the gazette notification we now have to publish a public notice about the expansion of the scope of the Commission. We have not been informed so far about the dates when the Advisory Council members will visit Sri Lanka.” He said the Commission would continue its probe on disappearances with a visit to Mannar from August 8 to 11.

One of the UPFA Government partners, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), broke silence to call for the immediate withdrawal of the proclamation. Its General Secretary and Minister Champika Ranawaka told the Sunday Times: “Those responsible for the move have lost the moral responsibility to claim no war crimes took place during the final stages of the separatist war.” He warned that if anything were to happen to the soldiers “we will hold those who proposed this and implemented it responsible. We know who they are and their tactical moves,” he said.

Minister Ranawaka said that after the proclamation was Gazetted, both the JHU and the National Freedom Front (NFF) led by Minister Wimal Weerawansa met to discuss the “dangerous situation.” He said that ahead of a UPFA resolution in Parliament to win bipartisan support against the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) international investigation, there had been a meeting of partners of the UPFA. “There, we discussed the need to evolve a comprehensive strategy to counter the international investigation. This is a complete strategic blunder,” he said. The NFF has called upon President Rajapaksa to withdraw the proclamation but it is unlikely it will, like the JHU, press the issue any further. This is in the light of moves by NFF leader Weerawansa to patch up differences with President Rajapaksa and continue to remain a partner in the UPFA. Compared to the aggressive stance he adopted weeks earlier, he has been more conciliatory in his approach in recent times.

For different reasons, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the key stakeholder in Sri Lanka’s peace and reconciliation process, did not welcome the Advisory Panel of foreign experts. Its leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan told the Sunday Times: “It is significant that this step has been taken by the Government after the international investigation has commenced its duties. I do not know whether it is the expectation of the Government that the functioning of the international investigation can in any way be diluted by this new process. That cannot happen because the persons responsible for the international investigation have made their position very clear. They will perform their duties regardless of anything else in keeping with the resolution adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Also significant is the fact that these new international persons appointed to play a supportive and advisory role to the domestic Commission already appointed, will play that role only at the request of the domestic Commission as and when requested. The real authority lies with the domestic commission. It is they who will decide when advice will be required and when not. So the whole exercise seems cosmetic.”

The opposition political parties seemed somewhat muted in their response to Rajapaksa’s proclamation which marks an about turn of the Government’s official policy. If for more than five years, the Government has maintained that troops have not committed any war crimes, it has bowed to international pressure and concurred that nevertheless a domestic inquiry was necessary to determine the facts. The only exception was the main opposition United National Party (UNP) which issued a rather acerbic statement but went into silent mode immediately thereafter. Here are some relevant excerpts:

“Since the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), over five years ago, the UPFA Government has consistently maintained that no war crime probes were necessary since Sri Lankan troops have not committed any of them….. Addressing the nation on Victory Day, President Rajapaksa has repeatedly re-iterated that the troops fought with the UN Human Rights Charter on one hand and a gun on the other. At last year’s elections to the Southern and Western Provincial Councils, he exhorted from public platforms that he would rather face the ‘electric chair’ than betray the troops of Sri Lanka…….. In what is clearly a complete reversal, the Presidential proclamation now seeks a probe into such alleged war crimes. To say the least, the UPFA Government is now concurring with the views of the international community that alleged war crimes should be investigated…….

“The United National Party strongly believes that both President Rajapaksa and his UPFA Government should reveal to the public why a major policy change on such an important matter was made secretly. The UNP notes with serious concern that this course of action has been without any recourse to the Cabinet of Ministers……. Nor has the UPFA Government informed Parliament…

“They (the public) should be told why President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who boasted he would sit in an ‘electric chair’ than betray soldiers, has now done an about turn and that too quite secretly. The UNP strongly believes the public should also know whether the actions are in the best interests of Sri Lanka or are the outcome of ignorant, shady but powerful brokers who are on an adventure wrapping up secret diplomatic deals behind the backs of the people. This is whilst the country’s diplomatic missions have become havens for jobs to mostly unqualified friends and relatives of UPFA leaders…..”

In London, Tamil diaspora groups are preparing a campaign in western countries against the three-member panel of advisors allegedly on the grounds that they were being hired by the Government for money. They claim they would merely endorse the Commission’s findings. Among the campaign is the collection of video recordings of public statements by UPFA leaders who are shown rejecting both an international investigation and a domestic one on alleged war crimes. This is whilst human rights lobbyists have pressured the UK Bar Association to act against the two QCs for what they claim is misconduct.

Though not publicly, the Government is turning to its advantage the domestic inquiry into alleged war crimes. One such area, the Sunday Times learnt was in diplomatic consultations between Colombo and Tokyo. Japan, one of Sri Lanka’s largest aid donors, like its western counterparts, has been urging the UPFA Government to heed calls for a domestic inquiry. This and other measures adopted by the Government, an External Affairs Ministry source said yesterday, had paved the way for a visit to Sri Lanka in early September by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The Sri Lanka Government would no doubt then stake its claims of having won over a strong ally of the west.
– form the political cloumn of the Sunday Times


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