By Srideep Biswas
On the model of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the end of three decades of civil war, appointed a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) on May 15, 2010, to examine the events covering the period between February 21, 2002, and May 19, 2009, and their attendant concerns and issues, and to recommend measures to ensure that there would be no recurrence of such strife.
The mandate of the eight member Commission, headed by former Attorney General C. R. De Silva as Chairman, was to inquire and report on the following matters over the period defined:
- The facts and circumstances which led to the failure of the cease-fire agreement operationalized on February 21, 2002, and the sequence of events that followed thereafter, up May 19, 2009;
- Whether any person, group or institution directly or indirectly bore responsibility in this regard;
- The lessons that could be learnt from those events and their attendant concerns, in order to ensure that there would be no recurrence;
- The methodology whereby restitution to any person affected by those events or their dependants or their heirs, can be affected;
- The institutional administrative and legislative measured which was needed in order to prevent any recurrence of such concerns in the future, and to promote further national unity and reconciliation among all communities, and to make any such other recommendations with reference to any of the matters that have been inquired into under the terms of the Warrant.
The LLRC had been constituted after rejecting calls for an international probe into the killing of thousands of Tamils in the final stages of the civil war and the refusal to allow the United Nations Panel of Experts entry into Sri Lanka. Backing the Commission, the Government argued that the LLRC, made up of Sri Lankan veterans, with a broad mix of local and international experience, had the advantage of “home-turf” and had the ability to conduct business in Sinhala, Tamil and English, to reach out to the people directly and hear testimony from former combatants in prisons, detention centers and rehabilitation camps. Further, it was argued, the UN-appointed Panel ran the risk of widening the split between the Tamil Diaspora and Tamils back home.
Sri Lankan authorities were, in fact, never ambiguous about their apathy towards the UN’s stand on the Eelam War. Former Peace Secretariat Chief and United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) Member of Parliament Rajiva Wijesinha, after his testimony before the LLRC, for instance, told the media that a thorough inquiry was needed to establish the amount of funds received by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) through various UN agencies. Giving credence to the allegation, according to Wikileaks, former US Ambassador in Colombo Robert Blake, in a classified diplomatic cable sent on June 12, 2007, had explained that LTTE’s fund-raising operations targeted foreign donors, including UN agencies. In the missive captioned “Sri Lanka: Tamil Tigers siphon off part of international relief funds”, Blake had discussed how the LTTE forced UN agencies (UNICEF, UNHCR and WFP) to work with its front organization.
The Government’s strong rejection of any UN or international probe into alleged war crimes was, consequently, understandable. Nevertheless, international pressure has induced the Government to conduct its own probe into the ethnic conflict. President Rajapaksa, on March 25, 2011, declared that his Government would study the findings of the LLRC and conduct its own investigations where necessary.
Unsurprisingly, international agencies have sought to undermine the LLRC’s credibility from the moment of its announcement. A major attack on the Commission came in the form of a letter dated October 14, 2010, jointly undersigned by the heads of three international NGOs. The signatories, Louise Arbour, Kenneth Roth and Salil Shetty, on behalf of London-based Amnesty International (AI), Brussels-based International Crisis Group and New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), respectively, refused an invitation of the Sri Lankan Government to make representations before the LLRC and unambiguously articulated their dissatisfaction with the Commission. Describing the LLRC as a “fundamentally flawed Commission” the letter claimed that accountability for war crimes in Sri Lanka demanded an independent international investigation, instead of the LLRC, many of whose members were retired senior Government employees and therefore pro-Government.
Another blow to the LLRC came on March 1, 2011, when the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution commending the UN Secretary General (UNSG) for appointing a panel to advise UNSG on Sri Lanka’s human rights accountability and calling “on the Government of Sri Lanka, the international community, and the United Nations to establish an independent international accountability mechanism to look into reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations committed by both sides during and after the war in Sri Lanka and to make recommendations regarding accountability.”
Though the resolution was diplomatic enough in its content and did not frame any direct allegations or doubts regarding the conduct of Sri Lankan authorities, the implicit message was far from ambiguous. The reaction was almost instantaneous. On March 4, 2011, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of External Affairs released an official statement noting:
It is well known that motivated groups do target influential bodies such as the Senate of the United States, with a view to persuade those entities to adopt ill-founded positions. It is therefore important that an equal opportunity should be afforded for alternate and more legitimate points of view to be heard, before a conclusion is reached… It is therefore all the more unfortunate that those who framed the text of the Resolution have overlooked the capacity and strong track record of the LLRC as a domestic mechanism, to work for reconciliation and the further strengthening of national amity.
Meanwhile, the Tamil Diaspora, among whom the pro-LTTE sentiment has always been high, has continuously criticized the LLRC through the media, particularly in controlled publications. Accusing the Rajapaksa regime of butchering innocent Tamils in the name of the war against LTTE militants, the Tamil Mirror, for instance, questioned the very legitimacy of the Commission appointed by the President:
One could ask him or herself how it is possible to seek justice from the butcher for killing animals. The butcher would have his own story. The animals, which are already dead, leave only the witnesses to seek justice from the investigation commission appointed by the butcher. How it is possible to get justice from this commission? This concept applies to the… Commission set up by Rajapaksa and the Tamils who are the victims of the genocidal war.
The Commission has, moreover, become embroiled in domestic politics as well. On March 25, 2011, the leader of the United National Party (UNP), Sri Lanka’s main Opposition party, Ranil Wickremasinghe decided not to testify before the LLRC. UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake attributed this decision to LLRC’s lack of interest in fulfilling its stated purpose of reuniting the communities and finding a solution to the problems faced by the people. Most analysts, however, believe the move was provoked by fears that the LLRC would be used as a tool to discredit Wickremasinghe, as he had signed the cease-fire agreement with the LTTE in 2002, an initiative that has long been criticized by Rajapaksa as having conceded too much to the rebels.
The Commission, meanwhile, has completed recording testimonies and is to submit its final report on May 15, 2011. With the sustained international and domestic campaign against the Commission, however, it is unlikely that its findings will take the process of reconciliation and political resolution significantly forward.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management