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Sri Lanka’s Truth Commission

by GIBSON BATEMAN

Readers will find no big surprises after reading the final report of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).

It is very much what most people were expecting. A document that looks to the future, exonerates the military, does not touch on the question of accountability and includes some touchy-feely language about the country’s need to move forward, celebrate its diversity and be grateful for the defeat of terrorism.

Essentially, all civilian casualties were the result of people caught in the crossfire or were the LTTE’s fault. “The protection of the civilian population was given the highest priority” by the Sri Lankan armed forces, the Commission has determined.

The report also claims that military operations moved at a “deliberately slow” pace because Sri Lanka’s military personnel were so careful and cognizant of the dangers to civilian life during the final phases of the conflict.

While the LTTE deliberately targeted civilians, it appears that Sri Lanka’s military did not, according to the LLRC report.

That assertion goes against what most people seem to think, including the report produced by the United Nation’s Panel of Experts.

In order to determine “questions of State responsibility,” the LLRC report goes on to note that an “international tribunal” would be unhelpful because there just is not enough evidence about what actually happened during the final phase of the conflict.

Essentially, it would be nearly impossible to “re-create” what actually occurred in a court of law.

The Commission found that it was just too challenging to give even an estimate of civilian casualties during the end of the war.

The Commission also found it difficult to determine what happened regarding the shelling of hospitals. Although, it is clear to the Commission that Sri Lankan military personnel never intentionally went after civilians in the No Fire Zones (NFZs) either.

The report talks about remuneration for victims/survivors, especially civilians.

Although, the responsible entity for doing so, the Rehabilitation of Persons, Properties and Industries Authority (REPPIA) is currently suffering from a lack of funds so it is uncertain how that will play out in the years to come.

The Commission’s analysis of the current challenges facing Sri Lanka appears to be slightly more realistic than the rest of the report.

Land issues, minority rights and the possibility that militarization in the North might be a bit too much are all mentioned. And yet “The Commission however recognizes the fact that considering the protracted nature of the conflict spanning a period of thirty years, resolving all such issues would naturally take time and require significant resources and financing.”

So, Sri Lankans and the international community must be patient, of course. Wait, wait, wait—there is always something to wait for in the pursuit of accountability in Sri Lanka.

And of course the Commission has found that the most responsible way to approach accountability and the pursuit of national reconciliation would be to establish some additional “independent” bodies to help achieve this.

The Commission has even suggested that the Sri Lankan government conduct an investigation to ascertain the veracity of the Channel 4 documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.” Evidently, authentication by United Nations specialists is insufficient.

While the video does contain certain inaccuracies, it still provides credible evidence that widespread violations of human rights and international law were committed by Sri Lankan military personnel.

There is some fluffy prose about promoting a trilingual Sri Lanka and finding a political solution to address the long-term grievances of the Tamil people.

So, the question is not whether or not the LLRC is insufficient. (It is obviously a weak report, and, in some ways, undoubtedly weaker than what even the most pessimistic people were expecting). The question is whether people sitting in Western capitals (like the US, UK and Canada) who were demanding “accountability” are going say that this report is good enough.

Was the statement made by US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, a genuine articulation of US policy? Does Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper really care about accountability in Sri Lanka?

Many people were waiting for the publication of this report. Sri Lanka and the LLRC should be topics of enormous interest at the Human Rights Council’s 19th session in Geneva this March.

It is unclear how events will unfold early next year in Washington, New York, Geneva, London, Ottawa and elsewhere in the coming months.

What is clear is that if President Rajapaksa is able to get through the next two cycles of the Human Rights Council unscathed, accountability and the idea of an international mechanism will become afterthoughts.

Sri Lanka is currently struggling with numerous problems related to human rights, governance and national reconciliation, which the current regime shows no interest in resolving. Yet a balanced, accurate recounting of what actually transpired at the end of the war is vital. Human Rights Watch has already come out with a strong statement condemning the report and others will come soon.

It is hard to imagine that a reasonable person (who has been following events in Sri Lanka closely) could buy “the story” that is the LLRC. But if other countries are placated by this biased, inaccurate and disappointing report loaded with lacunae, it will be incumbent upon Sri Lankan citizens and civil society leaders to demand more transparency and better governance from their politicians.

The publication of the LLRC report is one more sign that Rajapaksa’s regime thinks it can do whatever it wants and face no consequences for its actions.

Unfortunately, the regime is probably right.

Gibson Bateman is an international consultant based in New York City. He is a graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). 

*A version of this article was originally published in The Journal of Foreign Relations.

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