You can download a summary of the UNHRC report on Sri Lanka here. Or the full, longer report here. The crux of the report is that the war did involve the killing of innocents, abductions, torture and rape (by both sides), and that we need to take steps to address those crimes and prevent them happening again. I’ve condensed their recommendations here and added some analysis of my own.
The war was terrible and terrible things happened to fellow human beings. There’s no way around that. At the same time, the war had actually been dragging on for decades and the end of it was seen as a relief by most of the country. It was seen (and I think actually was) an end to suffering, not violence that came out of nowhere. So the local response to this sort of reckoning is conflicted.
Not Fair To Sri Lanka?
It is very easy to look at a report like this and say it’s not fair to Sri Lanka. The US and many of its allies are violators of human rights and war criminals on an industrial scale but they get away with it because they’re connected. This is true. This sort of attention actually isn’t fair to Sri Lanka in a global, political sense.
That, however, is an unfair response when you are talking about fellow human beings, fellow Sri Lankans, who suffered. So we have to balance what’s fair to Sri Lanka (the state) and the very human Sri Lankans who suffered.
It is also easy to say ‘this is war’ – because it is. There are no wars where innocents are not killed, kidnapped, tortured or raped. It’s a sad fact of the world that war itself is a war crime.
However, this does not have to be the only way. It is possible to have a disciplined military and it is possible to have at least justice and an accounting for what happens.
So I guess I’ve tried to take the reports recommendations in that spirit. I think ending the war was necessary and important but that doesn’t make the suffering involved right. I do think we can look at our past clearly and make changes to improve our future.
Personally, I don’t agree with all the recommendations, but here they are:
Recommendations from the report
Shortened and paraphrased by me. Read the whole thing. I’ve bolded the parts that will be especially controversial.
(a) Set up a executive group to implement this report and others;
(b) Invite OHCHR to set up an office;
(c) Initiate genuine consultations;
(d) Invite the Special Rapporteur on truth, justice, reparations;
(e) Through the Constitutional Council, appoint a new Human Rights Commission;
(f) Issue instructions to all security forces that torture, rape, sexual violence and other human rights violations are prohibited;
(g) Develop a fully-fledged vetting process respecting due process to remove from office military and security force personnel and any other public official where there are reasonable grounds to believe that they were involved in human rights violations;
(h) Prioritize the return of private land;
(i) Disarm groups affiliated with political parties;
(j) Review the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Public Security Ordinance Act;
(k) Review the Victim and Witness Protection Act;
(l) Accede to the International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Convention, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court;
(m) Enact legislation to criminalize war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and enforced disappearances without statute of limitation; Enact various modes of criminal liability, notably command or superior responsibility;
(n) Adopt a specific legislation establishing an ad hoc hybrid special court, integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators, mandated to try war crimes and crimes against humanity, with its own independent investigative and prosecuting organ, defense office and witness and victims protection program, and resource it so that it can promptly and effectively try those responsible;
(o) Carry out a comprehensive mapping of all legal cases related to serious human rights violations;
(p) Reinforce the forensic capacity of the judiciary;
(q) Review all cases of detainees held under the PTA;
Truth/right to know
(r) Dispense with the current Presidential Commission on Missing Persons;
(s) Develop a central database of all detainees;
(t) Publish all unpublished reports of the many human rights-related commissions of inquiry;
(u) Preserve all existing records;
(v) Develop a national reparations policy;
(w) Strengthen programmes of psychosocial support for victims;
So yeah, there’s a lot in there. The report is interesting in that it actually spends a lot of time discussing how much things have changed since January 8th and the new government. It says:
This report is being presented in a very different context to the one in which it was mandated. The election of a new President and Government on a platform centred on good governance, human rights and the rule of law provide a historic opportunity for Sri Lanka to address the grave human rights violations that have wracked its past;
And indeed, this is a very different government. Beyond the changes the UN recommends, this government has the potential to rewrite the Constitution and reform the electoral system to make a country safer and more equitable for all.
Personally, I think this government is capable of reading this report and learning from it. I think that we should take its recommendations wherever possible, though I think on the Justice side, any reckoning should be non-punitive – more along the lines of the South African truth and reconciliation commission.
What they propose here – enacting new laws to retroactively criminalize stuff and then trying the security forces under local and international judges – I don’t think that will or should fly. However, I think we should take most of these recommendations to heart and make real changes to make the country better for everyone.
The fact is that war is like this and Sri Lanka is being singled out for being small, and for being in the targets of a vituperative LTTE diaspora. But that’s a petulant way of looking at it, and one which acts like the people hurt weren’t important. Which is not how we should act about family. Those people were Sri Lankan and they were human and they and we deserve an accounting and changes that ensure that violence like this never happens again. Eliminating the LTTE has gone a long way towards that goal. Improving Sri Lanka is the next hard work to come.