UN Secretary-General Should Establish International Investigation
May 7, 2010
Every time the international community raises the issue of accountability, Sri Lanka establishes a commission that takes a long time to achieve nothing. Ban should put an end to this game of smoke and mirrors and begin a process that would ensure justice for all the victims of Sri Lanka’s war.
Brad Adams, Asia director

(New York) - The Sri Lankan government's suggestion that a newly announced commission will provide accountability for laws-of-war violations during the armed conflict with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is yet another attempt to deflect an independent international investigation, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch urged United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to take steps to ensure accountability through an independent international investigation into the alleged laws-of-war violations.

The announcement of a commission on "lessons learnt and reconciliation" came after a months-long campaign by the Sri Lankan government to prevent Ban from establishing a panel of experts to advise him on accountability in Sri Lanka. In May 2009, after the war ended, President Mahinda Rajapaksa signed a joint communiqué with Ban promising that "the government will take measures to address allegations related to violations of international humanitarian and human-rights law." But no substantive steps have been taken.

"Every time the international community raises the issue of accountability, Sri Lanka establishes a commission that takes a long time to achieve nothing," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Ban should put an end to this game of smoke and mirrors and begin a process that would ensure justice for all the victims of Sri Lanka's war."

The government has yet to publish the findings from a committee established in November 2009 to examine allegations of laws-of-war violations, despite an April 2010 deadline. When the committee was announced, Human Rights Watch warned that it was just a smokescreen to avoid accountability.

According to conservative UN estimates, 7,000 civilians were killed and more than 13,000 injured from January to May, 2009. Other estimates suggest that as many as 20,000 were killed. Government officials, including the president, have repeatedly insisted that no violations by government forces took place, and the government has taken no meaningful steps to ensure accountability.

On May 6, 2010, the Sri Lankan government announced that it will establish a commission to report on the lessons learned from the conflict and reconciliation efforts. In a statement posted on the government's website, the government announced that "there will be the [sic] search for any violations of internationally accepted norms of conduct in such conflict situations, and the circumstances that may have led to such actions, and identify any persons or groups responsible for such acts." The statement said nothing about holding such persons accountable under Sri Lankan criminal law or what other steps would be taken against those found to have been acting in violation of Sri Lankan or international law.

According to the government statement, the committee will consist of seven Sri Lankans, located in Sri Lanka and abroad, but will have no international involvement.

"Genuine government efforts with broad participation to promote reconciliation should be supported," Adams said. "But this cannot succeed without genuine and good faith efforts at accountability."

Sri Lanka has a long history of establishing ad hoc commissions to deflect international criticism over its poor human rights record and widespread impunity, Human Rights Watch said. Since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has established at least 10 such commissions, none of which have produced any significant results.

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry appointed in November 2006 to investigate serious cases of alleged human rights abuses by both sides was a complete failure. A group of international experts, appointed to ensure the investigation was being conducted according to international norms and standards, resigned in 2008 because it had "not been able to conclude...that the proceedings of the Commission have been transparent or have satisfied basic international norms and standards."

In June 2009, Rajapaksa dissolved the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, even though it had conducted investigations in just 7 of its 16 mandated major human rights cases. The president has not published its report.

This week's announcement of a new commission came after weeks of attempts by the Sri Lankan government to prevent Ban from establishing a panel of experts. After Ban informed Rajapaksa on March 5 that the secretary-general intended to establish an expert panel to advise him on accountability in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan government fiercely protested the decision, denouncing it as "uncalled for" and "unwarranted."

Ban has yet to appoint any members to the panel or announce its terms of reference.

"Secretary-General Ban should not let Sri Lanka bully and manipulate him into abandoning justice for Sri Lanka's war victims," Adams said. "It is time for him to demonstrate that he is squarely on the side of the victims of Sri Lanka's long war."

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