Sec. Clinton's shot at uncovering justice for Sri Lanka's war crimes

May 27, 2010

Originally posted on HuffingtonPost.comThis post is the first of our Sri Lanka’s visit to the U.S. Series.

In the context of Amnesty International’s global campaign to establish an international, independent investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, we are currently closely following the US visit of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Professor G.L. Peiris.

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, Professor G.L. Peiris, is currently on a public relations tour through the United States, touting his country as the new paradise for foreign investment, and dismissing war crimes allegations on the way. This week, he even took to the Huffington Post website to present his questionable worldview: “A Year After Defeating Terrorism, Sri Lanka Embodies Hope and Change“.

One year after Sri Lanka’s civil war came to a bloody end, the evidence that both parties to the conflict committed serious human rights violations, including war crimes, continues to pile up. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and the US State Department have compiled extensive reports on the human rights violations that were committed by both the Sri Lankan army and the armed Tamil Tigers. To date, not one single individual has been held accountable for the crimes committed.

Consequently, Sri Lankan government officials have had difficulties hiding their self-confidence following their successful attempts (so far) to evade official international scrutiny. (This confidence is further boosted by articles such as a recent New York Times piece that declares Sri Lanka as the number one tourist destination to visit in 2010. The New York Times article is now part of the official information package that is handed out by Sri Lankan embassy staff at events where the Foreign Minister is speaking).

Push to lift Leahy law restrictions

This new self-confidence became most visible for me during a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), when Minister Peiris openly stated that one objective of his US visit is to change US policy that bars US training of the Sri Lankan military under the Leahy amendment. The Leahy amendment prohibits U.S. security assistance to foreign military or security units, which are believed to have committed gross human rights violations.

Additionally, he defended the government’s decision to set up a domestic “Lessons Learned” commission (which does not have the mandate to investigate alleged war crimes). Sri Lanka’s commissions of inquiry are a guarantee that there will be no justice and accountability for serious human rights abuses. Since 1991, the Sri Lankan government has formed nine ad hoc commissions of inquiry to investigate enforced disappearances and a number of other human rights-related inquiries. These commissions of inquiry have lacked credibility and have delayed criminal investigations. While most, if not all, of these commissions of inquiry identified alleged perpetrators, very few prosecutions for human rights violations have resulted. Confronted with that fact during the CSIS talk, the minister stubbornly refused to answer my question about the human rights impact of the most recent presidential commission of inquiry (established in 2006) into several high level human rights cases, including the execution style murder of 17 aid workers of the French organization Action Contre la Faim (ACF). He had no answer to the question of how many individuals were actually tried as a consequence of the work of the commission, or why the findings that were sent to the President have not been made public to this day.

Unfortunately, all of this is possible because other governments, and subsequently the United Nations, have failed to take meaningful steps to set up an independent, international investigation that would once and for all clarify what exactly happened during the last months of the conflict, during which reportedly thousands – if not tens of thousands – civilians were killed in Sri Lanka’s so-called “Civilian Safe Zone”. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be the next high-level politician who will have an opportunity to raise these concerns, when she will meet her Sri Lankan counterpart in Washington this Friday. She will have the unique opportunity to reinforce the State Department’s own efforts to shed light on the human rights abuses committed during the final stage of the conflict and to send a strong signal to the world that the United States is not willing to accept impunity for mass human rights abuses. We will follow very closely if indeed she does.