War crimes in Sri Lanka The first casualty

IT WAS a long time coming. Six years after the end of Sri Lanka’s long civil war a new government promised on September 14th to set up a “truth, justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence commission” to investigate atrocities committed during the conflict. It is unlikely, however, to heal the deep wounds of that period. The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva says the inquiry needs foreign judges. Sri Lanka’s leaders, fearful of upsetting nationalist voters, reject that.

The pledge to form the commission was made to the UN body by Mangala Samaraweera, the foreign minister. It was aimed at taking the sting out of what the Sri Lankan government knew would be a hard-hitting 261-page report that was published by the UN two days later. In it, the council gave details of numerous allegations of what it said could amount to war crimes by both sides during the two-decade-long conflict between the army and the vicious rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). These include killings, rapes and abductions. The UN’s commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, spoke of a “horrific level” of violations and abuses.

Those “few” would include Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose ten years in power ended abruptly when he lost an election in January. With a sturdy base among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority, he oversaw the rout of the LTTE as president and head of the armed forces. One of his brothers, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was defence secretary. Maithripala Sirisena, who replaced him as president, might even be sucked in; he was acting as defence minister during the last two weeks of the battle, when tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed.

For the first time in nearly four decades, however, a Tamil parliamentarian leads the opposition. Another Tamil is the chief justice. The government has vowed to criminalise hate speech. But there are towering obstacles to reconciliation between Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups—Mr Rajapaksa being one of them. He is now serving as a legislator. If he is accused of war crimes, even by a tribunal from which foreigners are excluded, there may be a backlash against the government among Sinhalese nationalists who revere him.

Mr Rajapaksa denies that any war crimes were committed, but a commission he set up did find evidence of some wrongdoing. His troops went to battle “carrying a gun in one hand, the Human Rights Charter in the other,” he said in 2011. The UN report suggests that he is talking rot. For the country to admit as much would be progress. Before the council, Mr Samaraweera acknowledged scepticism about Sri Lanka’s ability to transform. The journey may be slower than some want, he conceded. Whereas for others, “we may already have gone too far.”