Alston assails Sri Lanka's "Reconciliation" commission

[TamilNet, Sunday, 20 June 2010, 16:25 GMT]
United Nation's Special Rapporteur on Extra-judicial Executions, Philip Alston, in an interview Colombo weekly dismisses Sri Lanka's local commission as ineffective without a mandate to probe war crimes, questions the independence of the same commission pointing to the past dismal performance of its Chairman, Chitta Ranjan de Silva, and cautions that "detailed and deeply troubling allegations won’t magically disappear." He adds, "the very idea that any Sri Lankan could acknowledge that war crimes might have been committed, despite the fact that they have been reported by a wide range of other sources, is treated as a hanging offence," means that this "approach does not bode well for the prospect of a genuine national inquiry into war crimes any time soon."

Full text of the interview appearing in this weekend edition of Sunday Leader follows:

Sunday Leader: What are your views on the Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation?

Philip Alston
Alston: Well, first of all, the Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation has not, as you suggest, been appointed to look into alleged war crimes. As an article on the website of the Ministry of Defence summarises its purpose, it is “to find out the root causes of the terrorist problem”. There is not a single mention of ‘human rights’, ‘humanitarian law’, ‘violations’, ‘war crimes’, or any comparable term. The mandate accorded by the government very carefully avoids any of these issues. Instead, the President has indicated that the commission should look forward, which is generally a way of saying that past violations should be ignored. Consistent with this, he has spoken of restorative justice designed to further strengthen national amity, which is another way of making the same point.

Sunday Leader: What if the mandate were to be changed?

Alston: Even if the mandate were to be changed, the question would then be whether the commission meets international standards for a credible inquiry into alleged human rights violations. A key issue here is whether an observer could consider the commissioners to be reasonably independent of the government. Here, again, the picture is not a very convincing one. The Chairman, Chitta Ranjan de Silva, is a former Attorney-General who oversaw that office when it was strongly criticized for having interfered with the independence and effectiveness of one of the government’s previous inquiry commissions (the still unpublished 2006 Presidential Commission of Inquiry). Including the chairman, six of the eight members are former senior government officials, several of whom have spent much of their time defending Sri Lanka in international forums. While the latter is a worthy endeavour, it does not tend to signal independence or impartiality when one is considering serious allegations directed against the government itself.

Sunday Leader: What is your opinion of the procedures by which the commission will function?

Alston: The next issue concerns the procedures under which the commission will operate. Chairman de Silva has stated that proceedings will not be public, and the government has made no commitment to making the findings and recommendations public. There is no indication that the commission will use the powers of law to sub poena all relevant witnesses and to obtain evidence from internal government sources. Overall, it is difficult to conclude that there are any conditions which are conducive to the production of an independent report, which would seriously and credibly address the very extensive allegations of war crimes that have been made.

Of course, the fact that any such crimes occurred, has consistently been denied by the government. Most recently, Sri Lanka told the Human Rights Council that they were “unsubstantiated, uncorroborated heresy”. But the detailed and deeply troubling allegations won’t magically disappear. Sri Lanka’s capacity to heal and forge a unified national identity which embraces all of its different ethnic groups will require a genuine examination of the past sooner or later.

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has an unparalleled track record of ineffectual commissions of inquiry of this kind. Indeed, its history, especially since 1977 is littered with them. It is precisely because such inquiries have been utterly unconvincing, that they have not succeeded in drawing a line under the contentious issues of the past that need to be addressed before they can be transcended.

Sunday Leader: But do you not think it only right that the government be left alone to conduct its own inquiry minus outside interference?

Alston: It is also interesting to contrast the government’s insistence in the UN Human Rights Council, that it should be left entirely alone to conduct its own inquiry, with its strong support for an international investigation into Israel’s killing of nine people in the raid on the Gaza flotilla carrying humanitarian aid. Sri Lanka apparently feels so strongly that international measures are needed in relation to Israel that its ambassador to the UN in New York is the chairman of the so-called group of three currently carrying out an international investigation into Israel’s activities.

I believe there are strong grounds for international action in both cases. I should add that one of the most problematic responses in terms of giving Sri Lanka its own space, in this matter, has been the suggestion by the Minister of Defence that any statement by General Fonseka on war crimes should be treated as treason and could thus lead to his being executed. If the objection is that Fonseka is not telling the truth, then let there be a public inquiry with the opportunity for all sides to present their evidence. Yet, for the government, this appears to be out of the question.

Instead, the very idea that any Sri Lankan could acknowledge that war crimes might have been committed, despite the fact that they have been reported by a wide range of other sources, is treated as a hanging offence. This approach does not bode well for the prospect of a genuine national inquiry into war crimes any time soon.


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