The Government of Sri Lanka’s long awaited investigation into the end of the civil war, the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), is finally out. At a first read it appeared to be the whitewash we all feared and subsequent detailed study has not changed that view. Amnesty International, the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch, Freedom from Torture, Sri Lankan commentators, the US state department and a former secretary of two presidential commissions of enquiry have all pointed out that, while the report does acknowledge that the government’s lie that no civilians were harmed is no longer believable, it fails to provide any effective or independent mechanism for dealing with the allegations.
In a humiliating blow for the Sri Lankan government, the LLRCs release spurred a senior former military officer to speak out against the Rajapaksa regime, saying that Sri Lankan army commanders were ordered by the country’s leaders to assassinate surrendering Tamils. The confession, made by a former major general, marks the highest ranking person to assert that atrocities against members of the LTTE and civilians were sanctioned by the government.
The unnamed major general gave a sworn deputation in secret which was shown to the British Daily Telegraph. In it he states that he was informed that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the defence secretary, passed on “some instructions to a field commander to get rid of those LTTE cadres [who] are surrendering without adhering to normal procedures”. The general confirmed that killing Tamil Tigers who had been captured or surrendered became “standard operating procedure” as the army closed in on the last of the LTTE fighters.
The Sri Lankan government have lambasted the claims in typical fashion. saying: “We categorically deny these malicious allegations”, and the claims are unlikely to force a confession out of the government as to their conduct during the war. However, the testimony, from such a high-ranking former member of the military increases the momentum for a war crimes prosecution.
Furthermore, his statement directly contradicts the LLRC. Although the LLRC admitted that some allegations of civilian abuses by security forces may have occurred and needed to be investigated further, it suggested that these acts could only have resulted from soldiers who were not following orders, thus purging the army and the government of any responsibility.
The report contains few surprises. The Rajapaksa regime mantra on civilian deaths has changed slightly; now it is no longer believable that there were ‘zero-civilian’ casualties, the report suggests that some civilians may have died due to military operations. However, it insists that these deaths were caused by “crossfire”, despite the existence of a United Nations report accusing the government of deliberately shelling civilian areas.
The report states that in regards to the shelling of hospitals, ‘the material placed before the Commission points to a somewhat confused picture as to the precise nature of the events’. The Sri Lankan government created that confusion – by preventing independent witnesses such as journalists or NGOs from entering the area – so that the conflict became a war without witness.
The government now hopes that this report, with its rhetoric about the future, will placate international demands for reconciliation. However, by uncritically accepting the Government’s rhetoric that these deaths were the result of crossfire and all rights violations the result of the actions of a few rogue individuals, the report does victims of abuse by both sides a disservice.
Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General, has been weak in his response, saying that he hopes the government will ‘move forward on its commitments to deal with accountability concerns’. We know this will not happen. The history of Sri Lanka is littered with reports such as the LLRC; they have always failed to prevent further cycles of bloodletting. It is up to the international community to make both sides face up to their actions, and so end the madness.