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Sri Lanka: Proposal to Establish Truth and Reconciliation Commission

(Sept. 16, 2015) On September 14, 2015, Sri Lanka’s government announced a plan to establish a Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-Recurrence to handle cases related to the atrocities that occurred during the country’s 26-year-long civil war. According to Foreign Minister Mangala Samarawera, the Commission will be modeled after the one established in South Africa to handle crimes from the era of apartheid, and Sri Lanka will receive advice from South Africa to guide the country in helping victims and locating missing individuals. (Stephanie Nebehay, Sri Lanka Plans S. Africa-Style Commission to Confront War Crimes, (Sept. 14, 2015), REUTERS; see also Sri Lanka Profile – Timeline, BBC NEWS (Jan. 9, 2015).)

Samarawera, speaking at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), described the general plan for the Sri Lankan Commission and proposals for mechanisms for both meting out criminal justice and granting victim compensation. Among the proposals is a plan to create a Compassionate Council, comprising leaders of the main religious groups in the nation, to assist victims of past crimes “discover the truth, understand what happened and help remedy any sense of injustice.” (Nebehay, supra.)

The UNHRC released its report on war crimes in Sri Lanka on September 16; that body is calling for accountability for the civil-war era crimes and, in particular, for the “establishment of a hybrid special court to try war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by all parties to the armed conflict.” (Id.; Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka, A/HRS/30/61 [advance unedited version] (Sept. 16, 2015), Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website [locate by searching for “Sri Lanka” and clicking on entry for the report number].) A previous U.N. report, written by a team led by Martti Ahtisaari, who is a former President of Finland and a Nobel laureate, estimated that in the final government offensive of the civil war 40,000 members of the Tamil ethnic minority were killed. The “Tamil Tiger” rebels were the main opponents of the Sri Lankan state in the country’s civil war. (UN Human Rights Council Urges Sri Lanka War Crimes Court, BBC NEWS (Sept. 16, 2015); Nebehay, supra.)

In response to the suggestion by the UNHRC that a special court be established, Sri Lanka said that it would conduct its own inquiries but not permit a U.N. court with foreign judges to have jurisdiction. (UN Human Rights Council Urges Sri Lanka War Crimes Court, supra.)

Although there have been calls for an investigation into many incidents from the civil war period, as well as government promises of action, to date the plans have failed to result in accountability. In advocating the creation of the Commission, Samarawera noted that “[t]he reputation of the vast majority of armed forces was tarnished because of the system and culture created by a few people in positions of responsibility” during the war years. (Nebehay, supra.)

Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed approval of the efforts now being made by Sri Lanka, but noted that the new report’s findings are “most serious” in nature and added that “[t]his council owes it to Sri Lankans – and to its own credibility – to ensure an accountability process that produces results, decisively moves beyond the failures of the past and bring[s] the deep institutional changes needed to guarantee non-recurrence.” (Id.)