(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Truth commission dogged by scepticism

A mother and child outside the Murugandi temple, south of Kilinochi, the former de-facto capital of the LTTE

Local activists have expressed doubts over the effectiveness of a truth and reconciliation commission established by the Sri Lankan government, which will investigate events in the final years of the civil war that ended a year ago.

Activists say the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission might not complete its mandate to investigate events during the last phase of a civil war between 2002 and 2009 - claiming that several short-lived commissions in the past two decades have failed.

"There has been a big gap between the words and deeds of the government where it concerns issues of human rights, good governance and accountability," Jehan Perera, director of the National Peace Council, an NGO in Colombo, told IRIN.

The commission, consisting of eight members appointed by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, will examine the "lessons to be learnt from events" between Feb 2002 and May 2009, according to a government statement on 15 May, when the last throes of civil war engulfed the island's north.

The conflict ended on 18 May 2009, when government forces declared victory over the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), who had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland for more than 25 years.

Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have died since the conflict began in 1983, according to government figures. Both sides are accused of human rights abuses.

Doubts at home

But the statement stopped short of saying it would investigate such allegations, prompting activists to question the government's dedication.

In the past two decades, various governments in Sri Lanka have set up short-lived commissions that did little to reveal the truth behind human rights abuses, said Ruki Fernando, who heads the Human Rights in Conflict Programme at Law and Society Trust, an NGO in Colombo.

After decades of war, reconciling the past could be Sri Lanka's greatest challenge yet. War crimes were allegedly committed by both sides to the conflict

After decades of war, reconciling the past could be Sri Lanka's greatest challenge yet. War crimes were allegedly committed by both sides to the conflict...
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Forced into fighting and still missing
After decades of war, reconciling the past could be Sri Lanka's greatest challenge yet. War crimes were allegedly committed by both sides to the conflict...

Photo: Udara Soysa/IRIN
Sri Lankan security forces and the LTTE repeatedly violated international humanitarian law during the last five months of their 30-year civil war, says the ICG

In June 2009, a Commission of Inquiry was disbanded before it could complete its mandate. Various presidents have also ordered that reports from that and other commissions not be released publicly, according to Amnesty International.

However, government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told IRIN that criticism of the commission even before it got to work was simply "premature and very unfair".

The commission will also look into the causes of ethnic strife in the 1980s between the majority ethnic group, the Sinhalese, and the minority Tamils in the north, Rambukwella said.

"The commission will make appropriate suggestions to the government of Sri Lanka based on its findings," he said, adding that no time-frame has been set for the investigations.

Last week Washington welcomed the commission, but stipulated that its members should be "perceived as independent, impartial and competent" and witnesses must enjoy "adequate and effective protection", according to Susan E Rice, US Permanent Representative to the UN, in a statement dated 10 May.

"We hope the commission will also reflect the desires and requests of the citizens of Sri Lanka, who were the primary victims of the conflict."

War crimes report

But many remain less than optimistic.

"There is no reason to believe this is any more serious than the previous commissions set up by this government that have simply perpetuated a culture of impunity," Robert Templer, Asia programme director for the International Crisis Group (ICG), told IRIN from New York.

"Nobody should have any faith that this government is capable of investigating its own actions."

The Brussels-based group on 17 May released a report calling on the UN to launch an international inquiry into alleged war crimes during the last year of the conflict.

According to the report, there were repeated violations of international law by both the Sri Lankan security forces and the LTTE.

The ICG said new evidence suggests that from January to May 2009 tens of thousands of Tamil civilian men, women, children and the elderly were killed, countless more wounded, and hundreds of thousands deprived of adequate food and medical care, resulting in more deaths.

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