Abandoning commitment to address wartime accountability issues will have serious consequences for Sri Lanka

GTF Press Release – Abandoning commitment to address wartime accountability issues will have serious consequences for Sri Lanka and a dangerous precedent the UN should not allow to be set


 23 September 2018, London

Abandoning commitment to address wartime accountability issues will have serious consequences for Sri Lanka and a dangerous precedent the UN should not allow to be set

The Global Tamil Forum (GTF) is dismayed at the Sri Lankan Government’s initiatives to abandon its repeated commitments to address accountability issues related to war crimes. President Sirisena’s recent public statement that he will make a special request to the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to drop war crimes charges against his troops to ‘settle’ the issue of accountability is outrageous and must be censured. It is also feared that President Sirisena’s calculated plan is to link the release of the long-held Tamil political prisoners who are yet to be charged, to a general amnesty for all including those from the military responsible for brutality, mass killings and war crimes. GTF condemns such approach to accountability in the strongest possible terms and turn to the international community to thwart any such misplaced and short-sighted attempt at its infancy.

The national conflict in Sri Lanka is replete with instances of Sri Lankan governments making commitments to address minority communities’ concerns, and then abandoning them at the slightest of opposition from the hard-line elements of the majority community. The difference this time being the commitments were made to the international community to administer justice, but its untrustworthiness is receiving world-wide publicity. Concerns about trust were raised when Sri Lanka co-sponsored the 2015 UNHRC resolution, but this was famously countered by the then Foreign Minister saying, “Don’t judge us by the broken promises, experiences and U-turns of the past.’ Alas, the country appears to have not moved away from its past, irrespective of all the promises made by the new coalition government that came to power the same year.

In Sri Lanka, the UN system failed miserably in 2009 in preventing the deaths of tens of thousands, mostly Tamil citizens in the hands of the country’s security forces. However, the initiatives taken by the leading UN officials to address this failure are notable and praiseworthy. The leadership shown by these UN officials and the support from several countries ultimately led to the passing of the UNHRC resolutions 30/1 and 34/1, in 2015 and 2017, respectively. Though Sri Lanka co-sponsored these resolutions, its commitment and will to implement them have not been demonstrated. Every notable step, such as operationalising the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP), was taken after years of delay but invariably days before the commencement of a UNHRC session, aiming mainly at managing international expectations for the moment. With regards to the crucial aspect of asserting criminal culpability, three years after sponsoring the 2015 resolution, no court has been set-up, not a single indictment served, and no one brought to justice. It is in this context that President Sirisena is making attempts to drop war crimes charges against Sri Lankan armed forces, apparently as a concession for the ‘progress’ his government has made!

In dealing with international crimes the world has made leaps of progress during the last seven decades – International Military Tribunal, International Criminal Court, ad hoc International Criminal Tribunals and Hybrid Special Courts. For serious international crimes, such as crimes against humanity and genocide, states can no longer use sovereignty as a defence and individuals can’t hide behind state responsibility. It is precisely crimes of this nature that were committed in Sri Lanka and the country appears to have wasted an opportunity to address the problem on its own or with international support and participation.

Even the thought of President Sirisena receiving UN consent to abandon Sri Lanka’s international commitments is inconceivable and can lead to irreparable damage to peace and justice in the country, with unforeseen outcomes for the world at large. No doubt it will lead to the alienation of the Tamil community and its political leaders, effectively extinguishing the prospect of reconciliation. International efforts will intensify to apply universal jurisdiction and economically isolate Sri Lanka. Its rehabilitation into respectability that began after 2015 will start to recede, leading to long-term damage to peace and prosperity.

More importantly, any success by the Sri Lankan president in this regard will convey a wrong message to other budding dictators and military regimes with despicable human rights record that they can live out international focus and resolutions without serious consequences – a dangerous precedent indeed.

Outright rejection of President Sirisena’s this ill-conceived initiative will indeed be a victory for decency, justice and humanity of the world, in particular for the citizens of Sri Lanka.

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