(New York) - The Sri Lankan government's proposal to create a committee of experts to examine allegations of laws-of-war violations during the conflict between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is an attempt to avoid an independent international inquiry, Human Rights Watch said today.
The government made its proposal in response to a report by the US State Department, published on October 22, 2009, that detailed hundreds of incidents of alleged laws-of-war violations in Sri Lanka from January through May. According to conservative UN estimates, 7,000 civilians were killed and more than 13,000 injured during that period, the final months of fighting.
"The government is once again creating a smokescreen inquiry to avoid accountability for abuses," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Only an independent international investigation will uncover the truth about this brutal war and ensure justice for the victims. The UN and US should not play along with the government's pretense that it will conduct its own investigation."
Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, to establish an independent international investigation into alleged laws-of-war violations in Sri Lanka. The United States, the EU and other international actors should emphasize to the Sri Lankan government that because of its proposed committee's lack of independence and the failure of past government commissions, a government inquiry is unacceptable as a substitute for an independent international investigation.
The current political climate, in which the government frequently persecutes critics, branding them LTTE supporters, makes a credible and impartial domestic investigation unlikely, Human Rights Watch said.
On May 23, soon after the end of the fighting, the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Secretary-General Ban issued a joint statement that promised there would be credible national investigations. The government had taken no steps to open an investigation until the State Department report was released.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement on October 23 calling for an independent international investigation, which Human Rights Watch supported. A spokesperson for the office told reporters: "We still believe that something like the Gaza fact-finding mission is certainly warranted given the widespread concerns about the conduct of the war in Sri Lanka."
On October 26, President Rajapaksa announced that he would appoint a committee of experts to "examine carefully" allegations of violations of the laws of war during the final stages of the 26-year-long armed conflict.
On October 27, the European Union, during its foreign ministers' meeting in Luxembourg, repeated its call for an independent inquiry into violations of international humanitarian and human right law.
Since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has established nine presidential commissions and various other bodies tasked with investigating allegations of human rights violations. None of the commissions have produced significant results, either in providing new information or leading to prosecutions.
The most recent Presidential Commission of Inquiry, appointed in November 2006, to investigate serious cases of alleged human rights abuses 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." The experts included: Justice P.N. Bhagwati (India); Bernard Kouchner (France); Prof. Sir Nigel Rodley (UK), Prof. Yozo Yokota (Japan); and Kamal Hussein (Bangladesh).
In June 2009, Rajapaksa dissolved the Commission of Inquiry, even though it had conducted investigations in just seven of its 16 mandated major human rights cases. The president has not published the report.
Among the cases it investigated was the August 2006 execution-style killing of 17 Sri Lankan aid workers for the Paris-based humanitarian agency Action Contre la Faim. Despite strong evidence of involvement by government security forces in the killings, leaked findings of the commission exonerated the Sri Lankan army and navy on the basis of limited testimony from witnesses.
Earlier this year the UN Human Rights Council mandated an international fact-finding mission into abuses during the recent Gaza conflict. On October 16, Secretary-General Ban ordered an international commission of inquiry into human rights violations in Guinea after approximately 150 people were killed during anti-government demonstrations.
Although the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other senior UN officials have called for an international investigation in Sri Lanka, Secretary-General Ban has refrained from making such a call. Inexplicably, the US State Department has indicated support for the Sri Lankan government's committee of experts.
"The government's committee is merely an effort to buy time and hope the world will forget the bloodbath that civilians suffered at the end of the war," Adams said. "Pretending that this is a serious attempt to investigate would betray the memory of the victims of war crimes and other abuses."