‘War crimes’, duplicity and rhetoric

British Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Hugo Swire, in his address to Parliament on Sri Lanka’s Human Rights situation on Thursday, reiterated there had to be an international element in the domestic mechanism for accountability. That was necessary, he said, to reassure the communities in Sri Lanka and to show the international community that it was a credible process. Doesn’t Swire think there should be an international probe into the atrocities against civilians during the Iraq war which was illegal according to the recently released Chilcot Report?

Anything done during an illegal war is illegal. So, the killing and maiming of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians including children amount to heinous war crimes and Tony Blair as well as George Bush must be made to pay for them. The illegal invasion of Iraq was carried out years before the Vanni war here. Therefore, it is alleged accountability issues in Iraq that should be probed first of all; the chronological orders has to be followed.

No sooner had Swire called for international participation in the hybrid mechanism to be set up here than President Maithripala Sirisena stressed, at a public function, that he would never allow foreign judges. One is intrigued.

The UNHRC resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka in 2015 calls upon Colombo to establish a credible judicial process, ‘with the participation of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators’, to go into the alleged rights abuses. In other words, the government, together with others, has called upon itself to facilitate the participation of foreign judges et al in the proposed war crimes probe. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has recently gone on record as saying that both the President and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had gone through the UNHRC resolution with a fine-tooth comb before it was adopted by the UNHRC.

So, how can the government say it won’t allow foreign judges here? Has an amended resolution been passed in Geneva, unbeknownst to other stakeholders, so that Colombo can prevent the participation of foreign judges in the proposed war crimes probe? Or, have the architects of the resolution, such as the US, given a cast-iron guarantee that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government can act in contravention of the aforesaid resolution with impunity? But, that cannot be the case, we reckon. For, UN human rights chief Zeid Hussein, in his address to the recent UNHRC session said, making specific reference to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s statement at a meeting with the military top brass last May that there wouldn’t be international participation in a domestic Sri Lankan justice mechanism: “… international participation in the accountability mechanisms would be a necessary guarantee for the independence and impartiality of the process in the eyes of victims, as Sri Lanka’s judicial institutions currently lack the credibility needed to gain their trust. It is also important to keep in mind the magnitude and complexity of the international crimes alleged, which the OHCHR investigation found could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Swire, too, has also said, reiterating his government’s commitment to the full implementation of UN resolution on Sri Lanka, the UK called for ‘international involvement’ in the prosecution of war crimes: “That is what we continue to stress with the government, with Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Prime Minister, with Mangala Samaraweera, the Foreign Minister, and through Prince Zeid.”

There are some questions that the government ought to answer as regards the issue of foreign participation in the proposed war crimes probe. TNA Spokesman M. A. Sumanthiran, MP, revealed at a Congress hearing in Washington last month that there was a tripartite agreement—with Sri Lankan government, the TNA and the US as parties thereto—on the participation of foreign judges. If his statement or what was reported thereof had been inaccurate then the TNA and/or the US should have denied it. They haven’t done so.

Will the government reveal to the public how it proposes to circumvent its own commitment, in the much-vaunted UNHRC resolution, to establishing ‘a credible judicial process, with the participation of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators’? Mere rhetoric won’t do!