When one’s expectations are low, it is difficult to be disappointed. But even with almost no expectation that the report of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) would seriously address prima facie evidence of war crimes, it has still left a wide range of observers dismayed. The only lesson that appears to have been learnt is that the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa has worked out how to get away with murder.
The Journal of Foreign Relations said the report “exonerates the military, does not touch on the question of accountability and includes some touchy-feely language about the country’s need to move forward, celebrate its diversity and be grateful for the defeat of terrorism”.
The LLRC report even lacks the imagination to go beyond claiming that the 40,000 or so deaths in the closing stages of the war were either from accidental cross-fire or caused by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers). Those familiar with the story of the Balibo Five journalists killed by Indonesian special forces in East Timor in October 1975 will know just how threadbare the “killed in crossfire” line has worn.
Being what is viewed by many as a government whitewash of its own actions, the LLRC unsurprisingly contradicts the United Nations Panel of Experts report on the same subject. While the UN report said that the Tamil Tigers had held civilians as human shields and had targeted those trying to cross its lines, it also said the Sri Lankan army deliberately shelled civilian areas, including hospitals, and had otherwise targeted three consecutive civilian occupied no-fire zones.
Following the conclusion of the fighting, the UN report said that the Sri Lanka army summarily executed prisoners thought to be former Tamil Tigers.
The LLRC report, by contrast, claimed that “the protection of the civilian population was given the highest priority”.
The UN report says there are grounds for believing that war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed, yet the LLRC says an international tribunal would be unhelpful because there is insufficient evidence to determine what actually happened in the final phases of the war.
The Asian Human Rights Commission criticised the LLRC report, saying that it had no mandate to conduct investigations and was, therefore, a “non-event” and that it was “meant to be a farce”. Amnesty International’s own summary of the LLRC report was that it is fundamentally flawed and provided no accountability for atrocities committed by the Sri Lanka military.
Human Rights Watch said the report disregarded the worst abuses by government forces and lack any mechanism for military or political accountability for the events of early 2009. HRW said the LLRC report only highlighted the need for an independent international inquiry. ‘The LLRC’s findings, largely exonerating government forces for laws-of-war violations, stand in stark contrast to those by the UN Panel of Experts, the UN special envoy on extrajudicial executions, and other independent organizations’.
HRW Asia director Brad Adams said the LLRC “commission shockingly fails to call for any criminal investigations into artillery shelling of crowded areas in which tens of thousands of civilians died”.
The international community has to date gone slowly on the issue of war crimes in Sri Lanka, not least because India and China are competing to see who can be the strategically sensitive Sri Lanka government’s best friend, with the US effectively sidelined. There is, however, an increasingly possibility that with the release of the LRC report the UK and the US could take the issue of Sri Lanka war crimes to the International Criminal Court.
Australia’s foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, had said he would also comment on the LLRC report, but has not yet done so.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University, and is author of Sri Lanka and the Responsibility to Protect: Politics, Ethnicity, Genocide (Routledge 2011)