War crimes probe: Sri Lankan dilemma

DID Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe bargain for trouble when he appointed, last year, a task force to seek public views and comments on advancing the cause of reconciliation in the island nation?

Anyway, the task force’s recommendation that Sri Lanka should bring in international prosecutors and judges to help investigate alleged atrocities in the civil war that ended in 2009 seems to have divided the nation. In effect, the task force has endorsed the UN call for including international judges to probe the conduct of Lankan troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the final phase of the civil war.

Both President Maithripala Sirisena and his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose government finally defeated the LTTE in 2009, are against any foreign involvement in the inquiry into the alleged war crimes. Both maintain that Sri Lanka’s judicial system has the capacity and expertise to hold such an inquiry, a contention challenged by Tamil rights groups.

According to a 2011 report by the UN, about 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final weeks of the civil war, mostly as a result of indiscriminate government shelling and bombardment. Army shelled hospitals and facilities where civilians were sheltering. Even those LTTE leaders who surrendered were executed. Tamil women were raped.

The LTTE that was fighting for a separate Tamil state in the north and east of the island where Tamils are in a majority was accused of forcibly recruiting adults and children and using civilians as buffers. The report followed a 2014 resolution from the UN’s Human Rights Council after Rajapaksa’s government was found unwilling to conduct a comprehensive probe of its own.

Is there is any chance for an inquiry by a special court even if the number of international judges on every bench is just one as recommended by the task force which submitted its report on Thursday?

Prospects are not very high. For one thing, this is a divisive issue. Both Sirisena and Rajapaksa are against any foreign participation in the inquiry not only because Sirisena was part of the government that crushed the LTTE but the Sinhalese majority does not want to see either the army or members of the previous government including Rajapaksa prosecuted for decimating the LTTE. They feel grateful to Rajapaksa for restoring peace and stability in the country. Sri Lanka’s economy has been growing by an average 6 percent a year since 2010 and local purchasing power has increased dramatically.

Rajapaksa was voted out not because he was merciless in his treatment of the LTTE, which by all accounts was the most ruthless and most powerful terrorist organization in the world, but largely because of perceived corruption, nepotism and an increasingly autocratic style.

Even though the UN has been calling for an international probe, the Western governments that support Sirisena don’t want him to do anything that goes against the sentiments of the Sinhalese majority and thereby undermine his position. They don’t want him to antagonize the people by indulging in witch-hunt or punishing the armed forces for the UN applause.

So the most we can expect is a serious effort by the government to improve its human rights record so as to avoid past mistakes and address the grievances of Tamils with regard to employment, rehabilitation and autonomy. After Sirisena came to power, the army has returned 30 percent of the land it seized to Tamil owners. We can expect more such gestures such as ending the harassment of human rights defenders, passing legislation criminalizing war crimes and enforced disappearances, establishing a witness-protection program, developing a national reparations policy and providing psychosocial support for victims of the war. This may not fully satisfy the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which wants foreign judges in the inquiry panel, but would convince a section of the Tamils that TNA did the right thing in backing Sirsena in the 2015 presidential election.

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