Sri Lanka’s New Government Hopes to Revisit Past on Its Own Terms

by Somini Sengupta, 'The New York Times,' February 4, 2015

UNITED NATIONS — Sri Lanka’s new government, whichswept into power in January on a platform of national reconciliation, is lobbying to quash — or at least defer for a few months — a landmark United Nations inquiry into war crimes set to be released in March.

That presents a delicate problem for United Nations officials and the Western powers that pushed for the investigation: After nearly 30 years of war and recrimination in Sri Lanka, is its promise of a new beginning enough to ease up on an international push for accountability?

Sri Lanka’s new president, Maithripala Sirisena, has not yet detailed how it will investigate and prosecute those suspected of carrying out atrocities, nor has it agreed to allow members of the United Nations inquiry panel into the country. However, in contrast to his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who rebuffed any cooperation with the United Nations, the new administration has suggested that it could accept the United Nations’ assistance in trying perpetrators of the worst crimes committed at the tail end of the long war against ethnic Tamil guerrillas.

A spokesman for Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, whose office has been working on the inquiry for the last several months, declined to comment. Mr. al-Hussein is on an official visit to Washington this week, and Sri Lanka is certain to come up in his meetings with American officials.

The inquiry is the outcome of a landmark resolution of the 47-member United Nations Human Rights Council last March. The United States, Britain and European countries pushed for that resolution, arguing that an independent international investigation was vital because the Rajapaksa government had failed to look into possible war crimes committed during the military operations that crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009.

The inquiry is to form the basis of a debate at the next annual meeting of the Human Rights Council in late March. The council could in turn propose how to hold the worst perpetrators accountable, including by calling for a referral to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

(Sri Lanka is not a member of the court, and only the Security Council can refer it to the tribunal — a highly unlikely prospect as long as Sri Lanka objects.)

The Rajapaksa government had established its own commission to investigate human rights abuses, including those involving “missing persons” during the war.

That commission, which had been widely criticized, held hearings but did not make its findings public or carry out prosecutions. The Rajapaksa government and its backers vehemently objected to an international investigation, refusing to let members of the inquiry panel into the country.

Now the new government is pressing world powers to give it time to put its own system in place.

A seasoned Sri Lankan diplomat, Jayantha Dhanapala, was sent to Geneva late last week for meetings with Mr. al-Hussein. The country’s foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera, will visit London and Washington in the coming days; Britain and the United States aggressively pushed for an international war crimes inquiry.

Mr. Samaraweera has suggested that the United Nations should defer the inquiry’s release, and he recommended that “a domestic mechanism” address accountability for crimes that both sides committed in the conflict, with help from the world body.

“It could be deferred or it could even be concluded,” the minister said in a recent interview. “One of the options would be for them to conclude the report and then refer it to the domestic mechanism in Sri Lanka to take whatever actions necessary, to be decided by the mechanism here instead of dragging this on.”

The quest for justice is not entirely blind in this instance. Sri Lanka’s parliamentary elections are in the spring, and the new government is sensitive to the prospect that any inquiry into the conduct of former government or military officials could have a bearing on the results.

The current administration in Colombo has taken steps to promote reconciliation, including by pledging to free hundreds of ethnic Tamils who were detained and offering to return lands that the military seized.

The foreign minister said that the new administration was “committed to ensuring that justice prevails for those who have suffered” and that Sri Lanka could do this for itself without being referred to an international tribunal.

Many human rights advocates in Sri Lanka are keen to see their new government be given a chance to live up to its promise — by letting in United Nations human rights representatives, for instance.

“There is a recognition that even if it comes out in March, this government should be given time to come through with an alternative mechanism,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a research and advocacy organization in Colombo.

“In the meantime, a whole lot of bona fides need to be demonstrated, which they can take into account and move from an attitude of confrontation of the Rajapaksa regime to cooperation.”

A State Department spokesman said Wednesday that Washington had always supported “a credible domestic investigation process into human rights violations and abuses” but declined to comment on whether the release of the United Nations report could be deferred.

Washington has significant stakes in the country. Not least, the former Sri Lankan defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a brother of the former president, is an American citizen.

Nisha Biswal, the United States’ assistant secretary of state for South Asia, told reporters at the end of her visit to Colombo that the new government had made the right gestures. “Much has already been accomplished in such a short time,” she said. “But we recognize that is a lot of hard work ahead and some difficult challenges.”

She said nothing about whether the United States would push for a resolution at the next Human Rights Council session to demand accountability for war crimes suspects.

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