Dear Secretary of State Clinton,
We are writing in advance of your meeting with the Sri Lankan Minister of External Affairs, GL Peiris, to encourage strong US action to end impunity for war crimes in Sri Lanka.
One year after the end of the armed conflict, Sri Lanka has failed to undertake any meaningful steps to investigate serious allegations of laws-of-war violations, despite repeated calls from the international community to do so. A commission of inquiry that Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa created on May 15, 2010, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), is not empowered to investigate such allegations and seems designed to deflect international criticism rather than to uncover facts and ensure accountability.
Research conducted by Human Rights Watch and other organizations has established that both government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) committed grave violations of the laws of war during the decades-long internal armed conflict, which ended in May last year. Violations by both sides were particularly widespread during the last months of hostilities. According to a conservative United Nations estimate, 7,000 civilians were killed and more than 13,000 injured from January to May 2009.
The international community, including the United States, has on several occasions called upon the Sri Lankan government to comply with international law and investigate alleged violations and to hold perpetrators accountable. Just days before the conflict ended, President Barack Obama called on the Sri Lankan government to end the indiscriminate shelling of civilians. The US Congress expressed its concern about alleged violations by directing the Secretary of State to submit a report detailing incidents that might constitute violations of international law. In October 2009, Stephen Rapp, the US ambassador at large for war crimes issues, called on Sri Lanka to conduct a "genuine" investigation into allegations of war crimes shortly after his office released a congressionally mandated report on violations of international humanitarian law in the final months of the conflict. In December 2009, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake said that violators should be held accountable. Also in December, Congress directed the State Department to examine what measures Sri Lanka has undertaken to address allegations contained in Ambassador Rapp's October report.
Calls for investigation have also come from the UN. A joint statement by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and President Rajapaksa on May 23, 2009 underlined the importance of an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. The statement said that "[t]he Government will take measures to address those grievances."
However, one year after what the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs chief, John Holmes, described as a "bloodbath" in northern Sri Lanka, there has been no investigation or accountability for the widespread violations committed by government forces and the LTTE. High-ranking Sri Lankan officials continue to insist that no violations took place during the finals months of hostilities, dismissing overwhelming evidence as falsified or invented as part of a conspiracy against Sri Lanka.
On May 10, 2010, US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, welcomed Sri Lanka's intention to establish a commission of inquiry, listing a number of criteria by which to assess whether a commission of inquiry would play a valuable role in advancing accountability. Now that the LLRC has been created, it is clear that it falls short of many of the criteria that Rice listed.
The LLRC's mandate-on the failure of the 2002 ceasefire-is largely unrelated to the massive abuses by both government forces and the LTTE in the last months of hostilities, and the commission does not have an explicit mandate to investigate alleged violations of international law. The terms of reference do not provide for adequate victim and witness protection, the lack of which has significantly hampered previous Sri Lankan commissions.
The commission's newly appointed chairman has stated that proceedings will not be public, raising concerns that the findings and recommendations will not be made public either. President Rajapaksa has yet to publish the report of the 2006 Presidential Commission of Inquiry almost one year after that commission ended its work. The government has also not published the findings from a committee established in November 2009 to examine allegations of laws-of-war violations set out in a report produced last year by the US State Department, despite an April 2010 deadline.
There are also questions about the independence and impartiality of the LLRC. Chitta Ranjan de Silva, the commission's chairman, is a former attorney general who came under serious criticism for his office's alleged interference in the work of the 2006 Presidential Commission of Inquiry. The attorney general's role was one of the main reasons why a group of 10 international experts, the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), withdrew from monitoring the commission's work. The IIGEP stated that 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 LLRC is just the latest in a long line of ad hoc bodies in Sri Lanka that have failed to advance accountability for human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. Since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has established at least nine such commissions and numerous other inquiries, none of which have produced any significant results. There is no reason to believe that this new commission will be any different.
We urge the US to state publicly that the Sri Lankan government has not fulfilled its obligation to investigate allegations of laws-of-war violations and that the new commission does not meet criteria set out by Ambassador Rice. The US should call on Secretary-General Ban to establish an independent international investigation without further delay. Given its seat on the Security Council, the US can play a crucial role in pressing for genuine accountability in Sri Lanka. The US played such a role in bringing about an important international investigation into the July 2009 massacre in Guinea.
A failure to hold the Sri Lankan government accountable for violations by its forces would send a dangerous signal that, when combating armed opposition groups and terrorism, international law can be flouted with impunity. The consequences for civilians caught up in such conflicts would be disastrous.
We thank you for your attention to these urgent matters.
Acting Asia Director