War crime probe resurfaces after Sri Lanka election

New Sri Lankan officials say domestic investigation is on the table, but international inquiry out of the question.

Sri Lanka war crimes probe
Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa's military orders led to the resounding defeat of the Tamil Tigers [EPA]

Colombo, Sri Lanka – A UN report into alleged human rights abuses during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s war against separatist Tamil Tigers has been delayed for six months – a move the world body said will help bring a credible investigation to fruition.

Sri Lanka’s new Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, meanwhile, dismissed the possibility of an international inquiry into war crime accusations, a demand long made by human rights campaigners.

“That would amount to an unsolicited intervention,” Rajapakshe said, insisting Sri Lanka was “committed to investigating any rights abuses through a domestic process. We will not compromise our sovereignty by accepting an international probe but remain committed to a domestic mechanism that can achieve results and deliver justice.”

In March 2014, the UN’s Human Rights Commission voted to investigate alleged atrocities during the final phase of fighting that crushed Tamil Tiger rebels and killed an estimated 40,000 Tamil civilians in 2009, and to issue a report on March 25, 2015.

On Monday, however, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein announced the report would be delayed until September in order to give the new government – which took power in a surprising election victory last month – more time to prepare a credible domestic investigation. 

 Sri Lanka calls for Rajapaksa probe

Zeid said the new administration in Colombo had given pledges “on a whole range of important human rights issues, which the previous government had absolutely refused to do, and I need to engage with them to ensure those commitments translate into reality”.

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera told reporters in Washington, DC recently that he visited the US to meet UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as well as Secretary of State John Kerry, in a bid to negotiate time to introduce an internal process based on international standards to ensure justice and accountability over the Tamil death toll at war’s end.

New investigation?

Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for the UN secretar-general, said last week at a press conference that Ban had stressed to the new government the importance of Sri Lanka establishing a credible probe that meets international standards.

“The secretary-general’s position on the human rights investigation is unchanged,” he said. The UN stands ready, as always, to support Sri Lanka’s efforts to address the post-war agenda as we have consistently affirmed.”

The UN mission and the US embassy in Colombo declined to comment. 

As Sri Lanka has not ratified the Rome Convention at the International Criminal Court, the island nation is not required to submit to a UN-initiated probe. 

Sri Lankan army snipers march during the annual Victory Day parade in Colombo [AP]
Sri Lankan army snipers march during the annual Victory Day parade in Colombo [AP]

The debate over an international investigation into the bloody end to the war has dragged on for years, with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa ordering a truth and reconciliation commission, a process deemed not credible by human rights groups. 

“We … will decide on our next steps, which will be measures that will not undermine sovereignty, but will be legally and ethically correct,” Justice Minister Rajapakshe told Al Jazeera.

Sri Lanka’s 26-year war that began in 1983 between ethnic Tamil minority rebels in the north and east killed an estimated 100,000 people.

A UN report quantified the lives lost in the final months of the war in the range of 40,000, an estimate vehemently denied by the Rajapaksa administration, even though his own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) acknowledged wrongdoing and called for a wider probe.

In late January, Sri Lanka’s newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena dispatched his senior adviser on foreign affairs, Jayantha Dhanapala, to Geneva to engage with officials at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and members of the UN Human Rights Council.

Dhanapala was in Geneva to convince the international community that the new government intends to explore ways to carry out a credible investigation, officials said.

If there is a probe, it should be a domestic process. It cannot be at the behest of a few influential countries out to berate the island.

by Wiijtha Herath, parliamentarian

In March, the government intends to send a high-level delegation led by Foreign Minister Smaraweera to Geneva, they added.

Despite a bitter election campaign after mass defections by former Rajapaksa allies – who later challenged and won January’s election – the new government has said the former president should not be “internationally humiliated” with an investigation focusing on his war-time actions. 

Speaking to Al Jazeera, parliamentarian Wiijtha Herath said Sri Lanka’s sovereignty should not be undermined in any way.

“If there is a probe, it should be a domestic process. It cannot be at the behest of a few influential countries out to berate the island,” Herath said. 

Reconciliatory approach

Army General Sarath Fonseka, a former presidential candidate, led military forces in the victory over the Tamil Tigers.

Fonseka, whose decision to run against Rajapaksa in the 2010 presidential race resulted in his being jailed on a variety of charges, told Al Jazeera that “due process should follow and allegations should be probed”, but he insisted “there was no role for the international community there”.

Fonseka, who was granted a full presidential pardon by the new administration, said: “There was so much dirt dug out and charges and counter charges. Let all that be probed but internally.”

Deputy Minister of Justice Sujeewa Senasinghe agreed that Rajapaksa must not come under investigation by a foreign body.

“There is no question of the international community being allowed to draw President Rajapaksa’s blood. There is a system in place and there are judicial reforms taking place … With us the interaction will be different. We are a government committed to accountability,” Senasinghe said. 

Rajapaksa had always remained confident of being able to block an international probe by mobilising support among his friends and allies, claiming his government was being bullied by some Western countries pursuing “hidden agendas … It is like Cassius Clay fighting a schoolboy,” he once said.

A spokesperson for the former president, Wijayananda Herath, was unavailable for comment despite several attempts by Al Jazeera.  

Source: Al Jazeera