Lessons Learnt (or not) in Sri Lanka

May 29, 2010

This post is part of our Sri Lanka’s visit to the U.S. Series.

This post was contributed by M.C.M Iqbal, two-time Secretary to Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances.

M.C.M Iqbal, two-time Secretary to Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances.

I have served two Presidential Commissions appointed by the Sri Lankan government to look into very serious human rights violations – including tens of thousands of enforced disappearances and massacres of civilians by state forces.  And I can attest to the fact that none of their findings or recommendations were taken seriously by the Sri Lankan authorities.  Their detailed conclusions and recommendations aimed at securing justice and redress for victims and their families have never been implemented and their inquiries had no deterrent effect on future violations.

The Sri Lankan government has just appointed the latest in a long line of these Presidential Commissions.  This one is on ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation’ to look into the armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that ended last year. This cynical gesture – vague in its particulars and bound to failure — in no way substitutes for an independent international investigation by the United Nations into allegations of war crimes committed in Sri Lanka.

Abductions, illegal arrests and detentions, kidnappings, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances (many politically motivated or committed in the context of supposed anti-terror operations) continue in Sri Lanka. Police blame ‘unknown persons’ for these incidents and rarely investigate. Torture in custody is almost the norm. When deaths in custody occur police often claim the victim was shot while trying to escape.

Domestic Commissions of Inquiry have failed to prosecute more than a handful of perpetrators in the security forces despite the fact hundreds of officers have been named in reports. This failure to challenge a culture of impunity gives the security forces carte blanche to continue to carry out violations.

Periodically the world wakes up and takes notice of Sri Lanka’s terrible human rights record, as it did briefly last May when the Sri Lankan government sacrificed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians and maimed thousands of others in its efforts to wipe out the LTTE. The government is accused of ignoring several international conventions relating to the conduct of war. Only an independent body can confirm the facts.

Sri Lanka appoints Presidential Commissions of Inquiry only when the government is under extreme diplomatic pressure for violating the rights of its citizens.  These may serve to temporarily derail international criticism, but nobody in Sri Lanka is really fooled by such dubious tactics.  We all know these Commissions are only window dressing.

That doesn’t mean the utter failure of Sri Lanka’s justice system doesn’t rankle.  I wish our justice system worked as it should and that we could rely on domestic institutions to protect our rights.  But we cannot, and the magnitude of the crimes that have been committed demand an international response.

Only a credible independent international body appointed by the United Nations  to inquire and investigate into what happened prior to, during and after the end of the conflict in May 2009  would bring to light the atrocities committed by the State and other parties concerned in the conduct of the  war.

No Commission appointed by the President is going to turn around and point fingers at its creator and say “you have violated international conventions in fighting the war; you are responsible killing a large number of civilians”.  If the President expects the Commission he has just appointed to be just and fair in the conduct of its inquiries, and expects the people and the international community to believe him, he certainly is naïve indeed.