“The announcement of plans for a Truth Commission or similar reconciliation mechanisms requires attention. Sri Lanka has witnessed too many ad hoc commissions in the past that failed to ensure accountability,” said the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights last week, presenting the oral update pursuant to a resolution on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka. The report further added that “accountability remains the fundamental gap in attempts to deal with the past. As long as impunity prevails, Sri Lanka will achieve neither genuine reconciliation nor sustainable peace.”
These are clear signs that the international community is no longer buying into the disingenuous, inadequate and blatantly superficial gestures by the Sri Lankan state to address what is a fundamental problem that has plagued the country for the past 50 plus years. This lacuna in respect for human rights and humanitarian law is not limited to the final phase of the ethnic war or the 26-year-old conflict with the LTTE. In 1971 the Sri Lankan State extra judicially executed up to 15,000 young men and women. The conservative estimate for enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings during 1987-89 is 60,000.
Numerous commissions appointed by the Government have recorded over 43,000 disappeared persons from this period. The disappeared or extrajudicially killed in the Northern conflict is in the range of tens of thousands. None of these crimes committed by the State have been delivered justice. Not a single perpetrator was found guilty or held accountable. It is a testimony of the phenomenal failure of the criminal justice system, the judiciary and the whole State.
In the wake of such a record Sri Lanka needed to demonstrate a considerable political will to prevent international action against its political and military leadership. In 2015 then foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera presented such a process which addressed all these concerns with a comprehensive transitional justice mechanism.
Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and Foreign Minister Ali Sabry who are now presenting themselves as the champions of reconciliation were at the forefront of the undermining and eventually derailing of the transitional justice processes under the previous Ranil Wickremesinghe administration. Rajapakshe as the justice minister in 2015, along with a Geneva-based senior diplomat, was directly responsible for creating strife between then premier Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena over the proposed domestic accountability mechanism. As justice minister, Rajapakshe is on record promising not to allow any legal action against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, one of the main accused in numerous cases of human rights and humanitarian law violations. Ali Sabry has been a primary enabler of Gotabaya Rajapaksa who is accused of some of the most heinous violations of human rights and humanitarian law in the country.
The duo Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and Sabry were recently jetsetted for South Africa supposedly to learn about the much celebrated and recently criticised Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of that country. Later it was announced that Sri Lanka will establish a joint working group with South Africa to work out the modalities of the proposed truth and reconciliation mechanism proposed to be established here. In their version of reconciliation there is no accountability for crimes allegedly committed by State agents including the military. Yet another commission is supposed to hear the grievances of victims, possibly retraumatising them, and move on with the hope that such gestures would suffice to address the outstanding issues.
The UN office for human rights has given its verdict on this new move to appease the international community and they have called the bluff it is. Reconciliation is not and should not be something done to appease international players or to retain some trade concession. The Sri Lankan people need and desire reconciliation. It starts with holding those who are responsible for heinous crimes accountable.