Analysts fear three experts’ advice may end like IIEGP
By Easwaran Rutnam
The Government announcement last week that the mandate of the Presidential Commission on missing persons had been expanded to investigate civilian deaths during the war and the appointment of three internationally acclaimed experts to advice the commission came as a surprise to many. Some fear if the advice of the three prominent experts are highly critical then they may just end up in the bin like the International Independent Eminent Group of Persons (IIEGP) in 2008.
IIEGP, which was appointed by the Government, had terminated their observations from the Presidential Commission of Inquiry owing to what it said was the lack of political will on the part of the Government to support a search for truth.
The Mission Persons Commission has now been tasked with investigating and reporting on the principal facts and circumstances that led to the loss of civilian life during the internal armed conflict that ended on May 19, 2009, and whether any person, group or institution directly or indirectly bears responsibility in this regard by reason of a violation or violations of International Humanitarian Law or International Human Rights Law.
The Commission will also investigate if such loss of civilian life is capable of constituting collateral damage of a kind that occurs in the prosecution of proportionate attacks against targeted military objectives in armed conflicts and is expressly recognized under the laws of armed conflict and international humanitarian law, and whether such civilian casualties were either the deliberate or unintended consequence of the rules of engagement during the said armed conflict in Sri Lanka.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa named Sir Desmond de Silva, QC (Chairman), Sir Geoffrey Nice, QC and Prof David Crane as the three experts to advice the Commission.
The experts will serve on an Advisory Council to the Commission of Inquiry to which the President says he may appoint other experts as may be required from time to time, to advise the Chairman and Members of the Commission of Inquiry, at their request, on matters pertaining to the work of the Commission.
Sir Desmond has developed a vast experience before international criminal tribunals in relation to the gravest of international crimes while Sir Geoffrey Nice led the prosecution in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at the international tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
The New York based Human Rights Watch said that it was ironic that for two years, when Human Rights Council resolutions of 2012 and 2013 called on the government of Sri Lanka to ensure a domestic process of justice and accountability and seek international expertise where necessary, all that Colombo did was condemn attempts to undermine its sovereignty. Now that an international investigation has begun, the government is announcing these measures.
“Every attempt towards justice for victims of war crimes and violations of International Human Rights Law is welcome, as long as there is an honest process to identify and prosecute perpetrators, ensure proper reparations. As yet, government actions and statements, which have sought to undermine and threaten activists and victims, do not inspire confidence that there is genuine commitment to accountability,” the South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly, told The Sunday Leader.
The Government has already played down the appointment of three experts to advice the Presidential Commission on missing persons, with Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella saying it will be up to the Government to decide if to accept or reject any advice.
Responding to questions posed at the post cabinet press briefing on Thursday, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said that the Government will decide what advice must be accepted and implemented.
“Advice is an advice. It will be up to us what to implement,” he said.
In a Gazette notification, President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga said that the President is of the opinion that the Commission of Inquiry should have the benefit of the advice of distinguished international experts, whose internationally recognised expertise and experience encompasses legal and other relevant dimensions of the matters covered in the mandate.
The appointment of the experts and expanding of the mandate of the Commission on disappearances comes after the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) launched its own investigation on the war and appointed three international experts to oversee the probe.
The latest initiative by the Government comes on the backdrop of South Africa making attempts to advice Sri Lanka on the Truth and Reconciliation process.
Ganguly from Human Rights Watch is of the opinion if there is a genuine attempt to establish the truth to ensure reconciliation, it will need to include accountability and justice.
“South Africa should insist that any process that it assists will lead to prosecutions for serious crimes as found by the UN panel of experts report. This effort should not be seen as an alternative to investigations by OHCHR following the Human Rights Council resolution,” she told The Sunday Leader.
The South African initiative is being handled by Deputy South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was in Sri Lanka recently and had talks with the Government and the Tamil National Alliance.
What is left to be seen now is how some Government coalition members will react to the latest involvement of foreigners in the Sri Lankan issue. The National Freedom Front (NFF) led by Minister Wimal Weerawansa had during its second National Convention proposed that no investigation or inquiry should be held due to “undue international influence other than what has already been initiated in accordance with the Constitution of Sri Lanka and the national legal system”.
The NFF also strongly condemn the suggestion made by various political forces influencing the Government to hold such internal investigations.
US hopes probe meets international standards
The United States (US) says it hopes the experts chosen to advise the Commission on Missing Persons can provide the assistance needed to help it meet international standards for credibility and independence. A spokesperson at the US Embassy in Colombo said that the US has long said it strongly supports a credible domestic Sri Lankan process to ensure meaningful national reconciliation and resolve outstanding concerns from the conflict, including the alleged human rights violations and related crimes by both parties.
“We welcome credible investigations into allegations of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. There are numerous reports of widespread threats and intimidation by security forces against witnesses and potential witnesses to the Commission. We hope the experts chosen to advise the Commission can provide the assistance needed to help it meet international standards for credibility and independence,” the spokesperson said.
The Embassy also said that it is concerned about continued attacks against journalists and members of religious minorities, as well as the weakening of the rule of law and increasing impunity for illegal actions adding that all of these factors undermine Sri Lanka’s proud democratic traditions. “Respect for human rights, transparency, and democratic governance are all essential for states to flourish in this global economy. Without robust democracy, reconciliation, and accountability, there can be no sustained peace and prosperity for the people of Sri Lanka,” the US Embassy spokesperson added. (ER)