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Real reconciliation?

Gabriel DomínguezFebruary 26, 2014

Amid growing pressure on Sri Lanka to address war crimes allegations, Colombo has announced it is considering a reconciliation commission modeled after South Africa's post-Apartheid body. But experts are skeptical.

A Sri Lankan mother holds her child in a village Jaffna peninsula, 22 June 2006.

The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly come under fire from critics for failing adequately to investigate war crimes and promote reconciliation with the country's Tamil minority following a decades-long civil war.

Last week, it said it was considering a process similar to South-Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Colombo sent a high-level delegation to South Africa to see, according to a spokesman for Nimal Siripala de Silva, Sri Lankan minister for water, who led the five-member team, "what lessons it could learn."

During their two-day trip, the Sri Lankans held talks with South African officials about the "procedures and experiences of the commission" that was set up almost two decades ago to probe political crimes committed during the apartheid era. The ColomboPage newspaper reported that the visit was aimed at exploring the possibility of using the South African mechanism for the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka.

Colombo has yet to formally announce whether or not it will set up such a commission, although those in favor of a body modeled after the South African TRC say it would enable offenders to publicly admit their atrocities and avoid prosecution.

Sri Lankan government delegate Nimal Siripala de Silva, (L) and member of the peace delegation of the Sri Lanka's government, Rohitha Bogollagama, (R) address a press conference in Colombo, 31 October 2006.
Sri Lanka's five-member delegation to South Africa was led by Nimal Siripala de Silva (L)Image: LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty Images

'Unlikely to convince detractors'

Alan Keenan, a Sri Lanka analyst at the International Crisis Group, regards the trip to South Africa as a last-minute attempt by the Sri Lankan government to undermine a US-sponsored resolution that is due to be introduced at the upcoming UNHRC session in March, expected to call for an international investigation into alleged atrocities committed in the final stages of the decades-long civil war.

Keenan says it is "unlikely to convince the government’s detractors," who accuse it of failing to thoroughly investigate these allegations.

After making a trip to Sri Lanka earlier this year, US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Nisha Biswal accused Colombo of failing to conduct credible inquiries and making slow progress in implementing the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which the Sri Lankan government set up in the aftermath of the conflict. "There hasn't been sufficient action taken by the government to address the issues of justice and accountability."

The New-York based Human Rights Watch has also claimed that there can be no credible TRC process in the South Asian nation at the moment "as there is no political will."

In a statement sent to DW, it criticized the government's failure to promote ethnic reconciliation, saying "there is no way, given the hostility Sri Lanka displays towards calls for accountability, that it is in any way serious about delivering justice, whether through a TRC or through its own investigations and prosecutions."

A similar view is shared by Amnesty International (AI). "The pattern of harassment, surveillance and attacks against those opposing the Sri Lankan authorities is deeply disturbing and shows no sign of letting up," Polly Truscott, AI's Deputy Asia- Pacific Director, said in a statement. "Sri Lanka is doing whatever it can to avoid accountability for the alleged horrific violations by its security forces during the armed conflict," she added.

Atrocities on both sides

For 25 years, the country’s armed forces fought against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), militant separatists seeking to create an independent state for the Tamil-speaking minority in the north and the east of the country.

In May 2009, the army recaptured the last area controlled by the LTTE in the north of the country, putting an end to a civil war that cost the lives of up to 100,000 people, according to the United Nations. Nearly 40,000 of them were killed in the last five months of the conflict.

Human rights organizations accuse both the military and LTTE of committing war crimes, including deliberate attacks on civilians, executions of combatants and prisoners and enforced disappearances, during the long-running conflict.

'Unwarranted interference'

The country's growing international isolation became evident during a Commonwealth summit in Colombo last year, when the leaders of India, Canada and Mauritius stayed away from the event.

Moreover, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, recently slammed Sri Lanka for "heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction," with human rights activists, journalists and ordinary citizens facing growing military harassment four years after the end of the civil war.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay in New York
Pillay recently slammed Colombo for "heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction"Image: OHCHR

"The war may have ended, but in the meantime democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded," she said. This week, the UN official also issued a draft report recommending an "independent, international inquiry mechanism" into alleged violations of human rights and humanitarian law in the final stages of the war.

Colombo categorically rejected the conclusions and recommendations of the report, calling it biased and "tantamount to an unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state."

In the state media, it also pointed to numerous post-conflict achievements such as the rehabilitation of internally displaced people, economic and infrastructure development in the war-torn areas as well as the establishment of the LLRC.

"This list of achievements, in the very short period since 2009, extends further, but it doesn't seem to satisfy those who are determined to present yet another resolution in Geneva," Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka's permanent representative to the UN, told the state-owned Daily News.

Last September, Sri Lanka held its first provincial election in the former northern war zone, which was regarded by many observers as a step in the right direction. The landslide victory of the island's main ethnic Tamil minority was seen as reflecting a strong feeling among the community for a negotiated political solution.

A Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil couple leaves after casting their vote as others line up to vote at a polling station during the northern provincial council election in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013.
The main ethnic minority Tamil party won a landslide victory in the September 2013 pollImage: picture-alliance/AP

However, although the ruling coalition in Colombo had promised to share limited power with Sri Lankan Tamils, the electoral victory has not yet led to a greater degree of autonomy in Tamil-majority regions, say critics.

"The central government has blocked the northern council from using even its limited constitutional powers," criticizes Keenan from International Crisis Group. "Instead, the region remains under de-facto military occupation. Unfortunately, all the trips to South Africa won’t matter until the Sri Lankan government decides to treat the Tamil people as equals."