End culture of impunity to foster reconciliation

by Jehan Perera

(February 22, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The issue of war crimes and human rights violations during the course of the war continues to be raised internationally putting the Sri Lankan government on the defensive. The latest is a petition signed by 41 British MPs urging the Prime Minister to work towards establishing an independent international investigation into these issues. Sections of the Tamil Diaspora will continue to press the politicians of the countries they reside in to take action. Many of them lost relatives who were either in the LTTE or were simply civilians who went missing or died in the last phase of the war.

There is currently another petition being circulated on the internet. Recipients are being urged to sign the petition and inform their friends, family, neighbours and colleagues to do the same whether they are Tamil or non-Tamil. The petition makes the call "Are they alive? This petition is to find our people. Where are they? Sri Lanka has to be called to account for those who were killed, those who are incarcerated and for those who are missing! They are our kith and kin - our children, our brothers and sisters". The target is 100,000 signatures in a week.

The spurt in activism on the human rights issue is likely to be linked to the debate that will take place next month at the UN’s annual Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva. It was to this forum that President Rajapaksa carried files of missing persons during the JVP insurrection period as an opposition parliamentarian over two decades ago seeking redress from the international community. It was an occasion to name and shame the then government for its poor human rights record. Ironically, the last three years have seen his own government under intense pressure at this same forum on account of its own human rights record.

Strong Defence

The government’s defence to the call for an independent international investigation is the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa with former Attorney General C R de Silva as its Chairman and several distinguished members as commissioners. The Interim Recommendations of the LLRC made in September 2010 specifically dealt with the issue of detentions and missing persons noting that there were persistent complaints that people were being held in detention for long periods without charges. The recommendations included setting up a special investigative unit within the Justice Ministry that would publish the names of those in detention and in general to look into questions of the laws delays and either prosecute or release those in detention.

The government appointed an Inter-Agency Committee (IAC) headed by Attorney General Mohan Peiris and with several top government officials including Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaks to implement the recommendations of the LLRC through practical measures and to strengthen the related processes that were already underway. The willingness of the government to act promptly with regard to some of those recommendations has been an indication of the value it places on the Commission.

Last week the Attorney General’s Department recommended that 676 LTTE suspects should be immediately released or transferred from detention to undergo rehabilitation and be released thereafter. Although the Commission has completed its period of public sittings, it went to Galle and Matara last week to conduct further investigations, and the media has reported that it might even have further public hearings in areas it was unable to go to, such as Ampara, due to the floods in the past two months. The Commission is expected to hand in its final report to the President on May 15 this year when its term comes to an end.

Key Issue

One of the key issues the country needs to deal with is that of missing and disappeared persons. During the war many thousands went missing and this has continued even after the war although on a much smaller scale. Recently a human rights group in Colombo held a small discussion meeting with the family of Pattani Razeek. He disappeared in February last year during the heat of the run up to the General Election.

Mr Razeek was the head of Community Trust Fund, a well known non governmental organization in Puttalam with a focus on the plight of Muslims displaced during the war. The resources and goodwill built up by the organization would be a political asset to ambitious politicians. At that time NGOs had become easy targets as anti NGO rhetoric was high in the post-war phase.

Although over a year has passed since the disappearance of Mr Razeek, his family still hopes for his return. What is most disheartening to them is the appearance of impunity in this case of personal tragedy to them. According to media reports the police have traced the SIM cards used to make calls from the victim’s phone to his family and had identified a person responsible. But no action had been taken successfully to apprehend this suspect who is identified to be a supporter of a leading government politician in the area. When the recourse to justice within the country fails, it is inevitable in this globalised world that an appeal would go to the international community. As a result there is one more petition on the internet that highlights the problems within Sri Lanka and speaks of wounds that need to be healed.

The meeting with the Razeek family was moving, as it would be with anyone who has lost their near and dear ones so cruelly. Undoubtedly the members of the LLRC have been moved by what they have witnessed and heard in face to face encounters in various parts of the country with the victims of Sri Lanka’s conflict. The media carried visuals and reports of hundreds of people who thronged the meeting places in which the Commission had is hearings in the North and East. A recent public lecture given by one of the Commissioners, H. M. G. S. Palihakkara, a former Sri Lankan Ambassador to the UN, is worth quoting at length in this regard. In his lecture, among other matters, he dealt with the international pressures on the government that stem from the problems that have arisen from this and other human rights issues that are related to impunity.

Diplomatic Skill

In his forthright speech Mr Palihakkara noted the "challenge that needs to be handled in a careful and calibrated manner in which policies and institutions relevant to governance, the rule of law and diplomacy must work with each other rather than work at the expense of each other. On the one hand we need to safeguard Sri Lanka’s national interests, aspirations of its people of all communities and our image and reputation as a long standing democracy. On the other hand Sri Lanka needs to work with all countries especially with those who may disagree with us on certain issues, in order to protect ourselves as a venue for secure investment and good business during this post-conflict period. We need therefore to preserve the independence of the local mechanisms created and to show to those who voice their concern on accountability issues, that the Government is serious about addressing them."

He also noted that "Most importantly, the Government needs to show the victims of the conflict, be they victims of LTTE terrorism or of the military operations, that the Government is responsive to conflict related grievances as well as their root causes. The Government has done well by establishing an independent mechanism for reconciliation.

It is important to show that the nation after emerging from an injurious and costly conflict, still retains the strength of character and the political will to introspect; look at its own track record and see if we had gone wrong somewhere and if we had, what remedial measures can we, as a civilized society undertake and what course corrections should be made."

The case of Pattani Razeek is the story of too many in a society that has memories of a glorious past and aspires to be the "wonder of Asia". There is a need to end the culture of impunity where those who are powerful can get away with murder. There can be no reconciliation without justice done and justice seen to be done. There was a time when the LTTE killed people to terrorise and rule over them and various armed groups either joined them or retaliated.

There were also the inevitable excesses of counter terrorist actions by the government forces. But now that terrible period is at an end. By empathizing with the victims and giving guidance to the government, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission can indeed be a Sri Lankan mechanism that contributes to end the culture of impunity that has blighted the lives of too many in Sri Lanka.

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