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Heavy responsibility of LLRC

by Jehan Perera

(January 25, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s sudden visit to the United States has been the subject of considerable speculation. The government announced it as a private visit. The secrecy of the visit has not been in keeping with the transparency that is usually expected of leaders of democratic countries. As Houston with its renowned health facilities was the destination of the President, and is not regarded as an international meeting place, this has given rise to concerns about the President’s health condition. It is also where one of the brothers of the President resides, giving credence to the private nature of the visit.

However, there seems to be more at stake than a private visit would suggest. On this journey the President was accompanied by a large retinue. This included family members which may not be unusual in the case of third world rulers. But the fact that Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris also accompanied the President suggests that there was also a bigger purpose to the visit. As a legal expert, there is hardly any better person than Prof. Peiris to argue a case on behalf of the government. There is a legal matter that the government may have to face sooner rather than later, and in which the United States can play a central role, which is the issue of alleged human rights violations in the last phase of the war.

It may well have been a coincidence that President Rajapaksa’s visit to Houston took place at the same time as former US ambassador to Sri Lanka and current Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Robert Blake, was also in Houston to deliver a lecture on US foreign policy to a university there. Even if it was a coincidence, it would have been a good opportunity for a meeting. Assistant Secretary Blake is reported to have expressed the hope that the Sri Lanka government "will act on the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission it set up as part of wider efforts that will be needed to help establish a lasting peace." These sentiments have also been echoed by other US government officials.

It is also significant that the Sri Lanka government has chosen to act on the LLRC’s interim recommendations at the same time as the President was visiting the United States. The Attorney General’s Department announced that it had appointed a special team to act on the LLRC recommendations with regard to persons detained as LTTE suspects. Several hundreds if not thousands of young and old persons have been detained for many years without trial and quick action with regard to them will be an indication of the government’s seriousness to implement the LLRC recommendations. The Attorney General Mohan Peiris has also been appointed to head an Inter Agency Action Group tasked with implementing the LRRC’s interim recommendations.

Meeting test

The interim recommendations of the LLRC appeared over a month ago. The Commission’s approach at this initial stage appears to be to focus on practical issues. They call for addressing the language and land issues facing the people, disarming of all armed groups, setting up a special mechanism to handle cases of LTTE suspects and ensuring that their families have easier access to them. These are all within the government’s capacity to implement if it has the political will to do so. The action of the Attorney General’s Department with regard to the issue of LTTE suspects is a positive indication that the government is serious about the LLRC process. This may also contribute to meeting the expectations of the international community at least in part.

The US government position on the prospects for a credible process of fact finding and reconciliation from the LLRC appears to more favourable to the Sri Lanka government than that of many human rights organizations. Several of them have criticized the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission as not being independent or capable of doing an effective investigation.

They have instead been lobbying internationally for an independent international mechanism to probe the past. No sooner did Amnesty International find out about the President’s visit to the United States, it demanded that the US government should investigate the President. This was on the grounds that he was "the Commander in Chief of the Sri Lankan armed forces which face numerous allegations of war crimes, enforced disappearances and torture."

Despite most government leaders in Sri Lanka, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa, taking a bold and defiant stance with regard to human rights violations of the past, they may also be concerned about what the future holds for them. Sometimes in addressing the electorate, the President has complained about a conspiracy between sections of the opposition and the international community "to send him to the electric chair". The allegation of violation of international law may make government leaders vulnerable to prosecution by international tribunals. Those international human rights organizations that have rejected the LLRC have instead supported the UN Secretary General’s appointment of a panel of experts to advise him on Sri Lankan issues.

Central role

So far the Sri Lanka government has not shown interest in having the UN panel visit the country and meet people within it. The government’s position is that there is no need for the panel to make its own findings, but if it has information it is free to disclose it to the Lessons Leant and Reconciliation Commission, which is the government’s chosen instrument of dealing with issues of the past.

The government also said that visas would be granted to the UN panel members for the sole purpose of giving testimony before the LLRC. Thereby the government has given the LLRC a central role in keeping international investigators at bay. The justification is the principle that national remedies must first be exhausted before recourse is made to international remedies.

In this context a heavy responsibility lies with the LLRC to ensure a credible and comprehensive investigation into what transpired in the past and to draw the conclusions that would bring about

reconciliation in the longer term. The Commissioners have traveled to all parts of the country and seen the ground situation for themselves. The Commissioners are fortunate in that they have had access to a wide range of opinions and facts from theoreticians, practitioners and victims which would give them a broad view of the issues that need to be addressed. The detailed submissions made by the Bishop of Mannar, Rayappu Joseph, which contained facts, figures, analysis and suggestions for action was exemplary in this regard.

The opening submission of Bishop Joseph at the LLRC hearing in Mannar in the former war zone of the North, was to express disappointment at the failure of previous commissions of inquiry to establish the truth about human rights violations. In meeting with a wide cross section of society, traveling to all parts of the war affected north and east, and in coming up with interim recommendations, the Commissioners have shown that they are doing their part.

It is incumbent upon the government to continue to provide the LLRC with an enabling environment to continue with their work, and to take their recommendations seriously by implementing them without delay. In particular, the provision of necessary and generous compensation to the destitute and battered victims of the war would be an urgent part of future recommendations that would need to be implemented.

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