Sri Lanka Wounds of War
Miles to go in the quest of lasting peace.
President Maithripala Sirisena, under tremendous pressure domestically and internationally, has finally promised to investigate, through credible process, the heinous war crimes committed during the 26year civil war that ended in 2009. Since then, there have been persistent demands that war atrocities, committed by the Sri Lankan military and the rebel Tamil Tigers or Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, should not go unpunished. During the last six years, there has been little progress in healing the wounds of war, though there have been calls for establishment of something on the pattern of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Percy Mahendra Rajapaksa, who served as President of Sri Lanka from November 19, 2005 to January 9, 2015, won the war, but became a target of criticism of human rights groups for committing what they called “unprecedented war crimes.” Many reports, including those of the United Nations, found "patterns of grave violations," especially in the last phase of war. Rajapaksa, who lost elections in January 2015 polls, says that his main reason for not cooperating with the war crime probe was its illegal institution by the UN Human Rights Council ( UNHRC). In March 2014, UNHRC authorized an international investigation into the alleged war crimes.
The present government has decided to set up a special court to investigate the thousands of killings, rapes and abductions that occurred during the conflict. A UN report, released on September 16, 2015, also demands that the inquiry should include international judges. Earlier, on March 12, 2012, the UN passed a resolution condemning war crimes in Sri Lanka under Rajapaksa. It was reported in the media that former President Rajapakse, fearing punishment for his role in war crimes, was opposing international war crimes apparatus and was urging all parties “in the island nation not to allow the passage of new laws aimed at persecuting members of its armed forces.” On the other hand, human right groups demand independent investigation, which they say, alone would reveal all facts about statesponsored crimes against humanity, help punish the guilty and also pave the way for a better future.
War crimes are prohibited by the Geneva Conventions, of which Sri Lanka is a signatory. In 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was created by the Rome Statute to prosecute individuals for serious crimes, such as those related to wars. Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, therefore it is only possible for the ICC to investigate and prosecute war crimes in Sri Lanka if the UN Security Council refers Sri Lanka to the ICC. Rajapakse disowns any allegation of crimes, let alone war crimes. It is alleged by human right groups that Rajapakse pressurised the Sirisena government to block the UN investigation on war crimes but failed.
Rajapaksa believes that if any member of the armed forces was involved in any wrongdoing, he should be tried under the local laws and in local courts. "The present attempt being made in this country is to introduce these faulty laws and procedures to Sri Lanka and to jail our war heroes expeditiously. No self-respecting citizen should allow this to happen," he said. However, the Sri Lankan government maintains that the process to fix accountability as mandated by the latest UNHRC resolution will be purely domestic and dismissed claims by the opposition that it would be a hybrid mechanism. "I wish to stress that this would be a Sri Lankan process, not a hybrid process. It will be the Sri Lankan institutions and systems who will be implementing the process," Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said. It is yet to be seen whether it will be acceptable to Tamils and others who distrust the government and accuse it
of partiality partiality.
There are some positive developments as well. President Sirisena, since taking power has taken many steps towards national reconciliation. The government has returned thousands of acres of land confiscated during the war by the military in the island's east and north and has made public all government reports on war abuses to ensure transparency and accountability. But the United Nations says much more needs to be done to investigate the thousands of reports of people who went missing during the civil war. Some Tamil groups have also complained about the slow pace of reconciliation, including the failure to withdraw significant numbers of military personnel from the Tamildominated former war zone.
On November 23, 2015, the United States praised Sri Lanka’s new government for speeding up efforts towards reconciliation with the ethnic minority Tamils. Steps such as the return of land, efforts to find the missing and the lifting of bans on Tamil groups “will help heal wounds that linger six years after conflict ended,” said Samantha Power, US Permanent Representative to the United Nations. President Sirisena is trying his best to mend relations with the United States and other Western nations, strained under his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was criticised for not doing enough to promote reconciliation between the Tamils and the majority Sinhalese.
Sri Lanka has to move fast to satisfy the aggrieved and the victims of war that justice and fair play will be ensured in the post-war era. Dr. Abdul Ruff in his article, Scared of Punishment: Rajapaksa opposes war crimes tribunal, concludes that “Sirisena has to deliver justice for the Tamils but leaving Rajapaksa unpunished would defeat that mission.” The question is not that of punishing anybody but rather forgiving for which the pre-requisite is truth; admitting atrocities and seeking redemption. The writers, partners in law firm HUZAIMA & IKRAM (Taxand Pakistan), are Adjunct Faculty Members at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).