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Opening up? Sri Lanka's new government confronts legacy of war

Sri Lanka's new government, elected in January 2015, says that it is willing to deal with thorny issues left over from the war in the north.  Amantha Perera
Sri Lanka’s new government says it will address outstanding concerns relating to the civil war that ended in May 2009, including allegations of human rights abuses, missing persons and political prisoners. The new administration, which came to power last month, appears to be willing to tackle sensitive issues that were effectively taboo under the previous administration. But activists warn only swift, decisive, action can reverse the legacy of pre-existing draconian measures.

“Everybody is free now, we want to set up a just administration and we are willing to work with all parties,” cabinet spokesperson and health minister, Rajitha Senaratne, told IRIN.

He said the new government, led by President Maithripala Sirisena, was also reevaluating its relationship with the Geneva based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which launched its own investigation last year into alleged abuses committed by both sides in the war. Seasoned Sri Lankan diplomat and former UN Under Secretary, Jayantha Dhanapala, has already visited UNHRC headquarters for discussions in his role as special presidential advisor on foreign affairs.

Line in the sand  

However the new leadership is maintaining the stand taken by the previous hardline Mahinda Rajapaksa government in rejecting international inquiries, including the current UNHRC investigation, which is expected to submit its report in March.

“We will not allow any UN investigators into the country,” Senaratne confirmed.

He added that the government was looking at setting up a new national investigation into wartime abuse and would seek UN advice and input into ongoing national programmes such as the Presidential Commission on the Missing. “If needed we will bring in foreign expertise,” he said.

The UN said it was waiting to clarify details.

For its part, Human Rights Watch (HRW) commended Sri Lanka’s new political leadership for the positive steps taken since assuming office. “The atmosphere for human rights defenders, the media and others has changed dramatically,” Brad Adams, HRW Executive Director for Asia said.

But he warned that non-cooperation with international investigations could undermine the new government’s credibility.

“For victims, civil society in Sri Lanka, and the international community to trust the [new] government it will need to fully cooperate with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council,” Adams said, “including by allowing UN investigators full access and making it clear that anyone responsible for abuses will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, no matter the position they may have held in the government or military.”

Verifying political prisoners  

Meanwhile the Sirisena government is already moving forward on the issue of political prisoners. Spokesman Senaratne said he had received a report with a list of those detained since the war ended.

“There are 275 names of political prisoners, all are [ethnic minority] Tamils and have been detained since the war,” he said. “We want to expedite the legal process.” Senaratne did not elaborate on how those detained came to be defined as political prisoners, but he said all were arrested for suspected links to the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which fought for more than two and a half decades for a separate Tamil state in the north.

The list includes those held under detention orders, prisoners whose cases are being processed and eight people suspected of grave crimes including murder.

Senaratne told IRIN the government was trying to verify whether any names of people reported as missing were on the list. To that end, he said, the authorities would be seeking the support of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main political party representing the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Mirak Raheem, an independent human rights researcher, called for greater transparency in the process.

One of the first things the government should do is to make the list public as soon as it can, so that there is no secrecy on who is detained and who is not,” he said. 

Raheem is encouraged, however, by progress on another controversial issue relating to the war-ravaged north and east – private land taken by the Sri Lankan military during the conflict. The new government has promised to return all land other than that appropriated for what it deems to be national security reasons.

The Sri Lankan military has used seized land to run businesses such as restaurants, guesthouses and farms. But Raheem said the government had given assurances that “whatever was acquired for business purposes would be handed back to the rightful owners.”

“It is hugely symbolic,” he said, “because it signals, for the first time since the end of the war, that the government is willing to take action on this.”

Legal experts, however, caution there is no clear data on how much land the military is holding and little clarity over demarcation, since military facilities and non-military commercial enterprises often exist within a single compound.

In another sign of restrictions previously placed on humanitarian agencies now being eased, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says it has started conducting needs assessments in (eastern) Batticaloa, Colombo and (central) Kandy, to determine the economic, psychological, administrative and legal support required by the families of those still missing five years after the war ended. The programme will include the relatives of missing government security force personnel as well as those of Tamil combatants and civilians. The ICRC says it plans to carry out further assessments in other parts of the country later in the year, after which it will present its recommendations to the government.


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