Hopes that Sri Lanka’s new president, Maithripala Sirisena, would represent a clean break with the controversial regime of his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, have been dented after the BBC reported that Sirisena has refused to allow United Nations human rights investigators into the country to examine allegations of atrocities committed in May 2009 during the final stages of the 26-year civil war.
The military is widely believed to have killed some 40,000 Tamil civilians in shelling an area the army had previously declared as a safe ‘no-fire zone’, the Washington Post reported. Thousands more have been ‘disappeared’ – as long ago as 1999 the number of people missing after being detained by the security forces was estimated at 12,000 by aUN study.
Sirisena told BBC Sinhala that an investigative committee would work ‘efficiently, in a balanced, legal and impartial manner’. When asked if UN investigators would be involved, he said: ‘We are ready to get advice and their opinions for the inquiry, but I don’t think we need any outsiders because we have all the sources for this.’
The president appeared to all but announce the outcome of the yet-to-be-formed inquiry when he told the BBC that he ‘doesn’t believe’ war crimes allegations expounded in brutal detail by last year’s documentary No Fire Zone, which was first shown on the UK’s Channel 4. According to a translation of the interview by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, the president said: ‘I think we have to reject those things. I don’t believe such things.’ Despite admitting that he had not actually seen it, Sirisena claimed that the film set out to ‘mislead the international community about the situation’.
The news will come as a humiliating disappointment to the UN Human Rights Council. In March 2014, the 47-member council ordered a comprehensive investigation into alleged human rights abuses by both sides during the last years of the war in Sri Lanka. Giving Sirisena the benefit of the doubt, the Geneva-based body decided in February to delay consideration of the long-awaited report. The UN commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said he had received ‘clear commitments from the new government of Sri Lanka indicating it was prepared to co-operate on a whole range of important human rights issues – which the previous government had absolutely refused to do – and I need to engage with them to ensure those commitments translate into reality.’
Asked by the London-based Tamil Guardian website about the new president’s refusal to allow the UN team into Sri Lanka, and his dismissal of the evidence of mass atrocities in No Fire Zone, Hussein said: ‘I haven’t seen these reports yet and will have to look into the alleged reports. The Sri Lankan government has given me its commitment to accountability and working with the UN. In the past the new president has also said he will not deny what happened in 2009.’
When Sirisena, the 63-year-old general secretary of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party and health minister in Rajapaksa’s government, had split from his former ally to stand for election against him, he had pledged to curb the executive power-grab of the Rajapaksa clan by reinforcing Sri Lanka’s judiciary and parliament, fighting corruption andinvestigating the war crime allegations after the country had attracted increasing criticism internationally by stonewalling on demands for an independent inquiry.
Rajapaksa had consistently and angrily rejected criticism of his government’s record during the war, pointing to the number of casualties on the majority Sinhalese side to deflect scrutiny of the last days of the war. Before the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Colombo in November 2013, the British prime minister, David Cameron, had responded to criticism of him for attending the controversial summit (India and Canada boycotted the conference) by letting it be known that he expected a meeting with Rajapaksa at which he would demand answers to the abuse allegations. Sri Lanka’s communications minister, Keheliya Rambukwella, retorted: ‘We are a sovereign nation. You think someone can just make a demand from Sri Lanka?’
An attempt to put the controversy to rest fooled few people. The army chief, Lt Gen Jagath Jayasuriya, who was in charge of the no-fire zone, said the allegations were fabrications aimed at discrediting his troops. The Hindureported that the inquiry set up by Jayasuriya, and led by Maj Gen Chrishantha de Silva, unsurprisingly found no wrongdoing on the army’s party. It concluded: ‘The instances of shellings referred to in the LLRC [Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission] report were not caused by the Sri Lanka Army and civilian casualties might have occurred due to unlawful acts by LTTE [the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam].’
‘Evidence revealed that at all stages of the Humanitarian Operation, the Sri Lanka Army behaved as a well-disciplined military force observing the IHL [international humanitarian law] and the law of war and they took all the precautions to avoid civilian casualties and all those who came under the control of the Sri Lanka Army, including surrendered/captured LTTE cadres, were treated humanely observing the IHL to the letter.’
Agence France-Presse reported that the privately owned but pro-government Island newspaper claimed the Channel 4 documentary was aimed at bolstering the claims of defeated Tamil Tiger rebels and reviving their separatist demands. ‘What is called for is not a probe into the unsubstantiated allegations of war crimes against Sri Lanka but a thorough investigation into the Channel 4 videos whose authenticity is in question.’
As covered in Commonwealth Update 429, the film No Fire Zone: the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka presented prima facie evidence of human rights abuses and slaughter on an epic scale. By the time the rump of the LTTE forces had been defeated, UN estimates of the number of civilians killed ranged from 40,000 to 70,000. Peter McKay, one of the last UN workers to leave the north, said he had witnessed ‘very serious potential war crimes’. The Sri Lankan army appeared to be ‘actively targeting’ civilians, he said. A secret US embassy cable to Washington quoted in the film estimated that 78% of civilian deaths occurred in the supposedly safe haven.
The director of No Fire Zone, Callum Macrae, who has just released a Sinhala-language version of his film, said in response to Sirisena’s remarks: ‘These comments by President Sirisena are both surprising and disappointing and represent a step backwards in the search for justice.
‘How does he expect witnesses and survivors of these awful crimes to come forward and testify at a domestic investigation set up by someone who has effectively said in advance that he “doesn’t believe” the events they will describe. How can such a process be described as “impartial”?
‘When the UN Human Rights Council set up its international inquiry (OISL) in March last year it was because it had reached the conclusion that for all his promises of a domestic enquiry, President Rajapaksa had demonstrated that he was neither willing, nor capable of providing a genuinely credible and impartial one.
‘When the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights postponed the publication of the OISL [OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka] report to September he said it was to allow the new government ‘to show its willingness to cooperate’ and because it could lead to a ‘stronger and more comprehensive report’.
‘But now President Sirisena, like President Rajapaksa before him, has refused to let the OISL investigators in to Sri Lanka. So we are back to square one and when the OISL report is presented in September the UN Human Rights Council will have to act on that report and move to set up some form of international judicial mechanism which can ensure that justice is done for all the communities of Sri Lanka. No one has anything to fear from the truth except the guilty.’
How much can the world rely on Sri Lanka’s media to uncover the truth? Not a lot, sadly: despite the fearless efforts of countless journalists, it has been rated in the bottom 10% of Reporters Without Borders’ latest survey of press freedom, coming 165th out of 180 countries. The country’s security services are notorious for the sinister white vans into which they bundle their victims. Between 2004 (when the United People’s Freedom Alliance came to power and Rajapaksa became prime minister) and 2010, at least 43 journalists and media workers were either killed or ‘disappeared’, according to Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka. ‘No investigation pursued – no perpetrator brought to justice.’
‘In 2013 Amnesty International reported that more than 80 journalists had gone into exile since 2005. It is such a dismal record that Sri Lanka ranks even lower for press freedom than Saudi Arabia, which is currently going through the literally tortuous process of flogging a blogger, Rail Badawi, 1,000 times (he has to be given medical attention to keep him alive long enough to survive all his whippings and the 10-year sentence to follow).