The decision to delay the publication of the UN Human Rights Council Inquiry until September was a bitter disappointment for many. For the brave individuals who took the risk of testifying it felt like a betrayal.
But it has happened. That is a fact. Our job is to try and turn this to the advantage of the campaign for accountability, justice and political solutions to the injustices faced by the Tamils of the North and East of Sri Lanka..
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, ZeidRa’ad Al Hussein, has given an unequivocal promise that the report will be issued in September. He says there will be no further delays. His statement is firm and has the air of a personal commitment – a personal guarantee. That is to be welcomed.
He also holds out the possibility that the delay could lead to the emergence of “important new information” which could “strengthen the report.” Certainly that could happen if the government translates its vague promises to work with the High Commissioner into genuine action – the only co-operation that would really count, which would be to invite the UN investigators to Sri Lanka to carry out further work, and to guarantee full witness protection for those who give them evidence.
Anything less than that effectively guarantees that no “important new information” will emerge.
But any such undertaking is notably absent from the government’s promises. Instead, in his letter to Zeid, Foreign Minister MangalaSamaraweera, talks only of setting up a “credible domestic mechanism” and working with the High Commissioner’s office to develop this domestic mechanism and obtain “technical assistance”.
The question is not just whether the government is actually willing to set up a genuinely “credible” domestic investigation, but whether it is even capable of so doing. The problem is that not only did President Sirisena– as Deputy Defence Minister – have direct command responsibility for the armed forces at significant periods in the war, he actually boasted of the fact during his election campaign.
He even pledged – in his Sinhala language televised electoral address – that no Sri Lankan would face any international tribunal for what he called “fighting terrorism.” The disturbing implication being that what the international community might regard as “war crimes” or “crimes against humanity”, Siresena sees only as “fighting terrorism”.
In an article last month in the state newspaper Daily News, Sirisena’s Justice Deputy Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe – while saying the government would conduct a domestic probe “with the assistance of the UN” is also quoted as stating: “(Former Defence Secretary) Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is safe as long as he stays within the jurisdiction of Sri Lanka”. Officially he was just suggesting he was safe from international procedures, but the implication was that his protection went further.
Meanwhile in his letter to UN Human Rights High Commissioner Zeid, Foreign Minister Samaraweera – attempting to suggest they are serious about a domestic inquiry – said the government acknowledges that “certain incidents took place during the conflict period.” For anyone even remotely aware of the events of 2009, his description of deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians mostly caused by government shelling, as “certain incidents” hardly inspires confidence.
And what of Sarath Fonseka? This senior supporter and advisor to President Sirisena is not only accused of direct and constant command responsibility for Sri Lankan armed forces while all the worst crimes were being committed throughout all of the final stages of the war – but he has constantly boasted of the fact that he was in charge.
In an act which on its own should be enough to ring alarm bells throughout the world, the government apparently saw no contradiction in restoring Fonseka’s military honours, privileges and salary (stripped by President Rajapaksa), while failing to show the slightest inclination to release Balendran Jeyakumari – mother of a then 15 year old LTTE conscript who disappeared in government custody at the end of the war. Jeyakumari – guilty only of campaigning to find her son – has been held without any charge for nearly a year, and her daughter has been taken into care.
This new government has made significant and welcome steps towards the restoration of the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the press. It has shown boldness in launching urgent and genuine investigations into the corruption and nepotism of the previous regime. But on the existential issues of accountability for the massacres at the end of the war and the search for genuine brave political solutions to the injustices that led to the war in the first place – there are precious few signs of goodwill, let alone real change.
The UN inquiry report will now be delayed until the September Human Rights Council. But the publication of the report is only part of the story.
The Human Rights Council eventually voted to launch this international inquiry last year because the Rajapaksa government had effectively demonstrated it was neither willing nor capable of organizing a genuine, credible inquiry of its own, despite protestations to the contrary.
All the evidence so far suggests that despite its own protestations – and despite its progress on other matters – on the key issues of accountability and moves to find bold political solutions to the issues affecting Tamils, the Sirisena government is no different.
So in September, after the report is published, the Human Rights Council must decide what to do next.
In 2005 the UN unanimously accepted that in the absence of state action to prevent crimes including ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, genocide and incitement to those acts, it had a collective responsibility to intervene to protect populations. In 2009 it signally failed in that duty. Now it has a clear responsibility to ensure that its failure then, is not further compounded by a failure to ensure that justice and accountability reign in Sri Lanka over the crimes that were committed.
Over the next few months, supporters of human rights, truth, justice and respect for international humanitarian law will want to ensure that the pressure is kept up, not just on the Sirisena government to deliver genuine progress, but also on the international community not to take its eye off the ball. Most importantly they will want to ensure that what comes out of the publication of the inquiry report – and the September meeting of the UN Human Rights Council which will discuss it – is a resolution paving the way to the creation of a genuinely independent process of justice and accountability which of necessity needs to be carried out with direct international authorityand participation.
To help inform that debate, we have launched a Kickstarter funding campaign to ensure that the latest updated version of our film, No Fire Zone, is seen as widely as possible by politicians and diplomats around the world – and the people that elect them and to whom they are answerable: the public. In particular we want to ensure the film is seen by as many country missions to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva as possible.