Local civil society groups in Sri Lanka view a recently released government-appointed commission report on the final period of the country’s decades-long civil war as a "springboard" for long-awaited reconciliation, while international human rights groups continue calling for an independent inquiry.
"This report will enable the country to move forward, addressing accountability issues and concerns on human rights," said Dinesh Dodamgoda, director of Colombo-based NGO International Centre for Promoting Reconciliation.
Appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in May 2010 to look into the final stage of the conflict against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) conducted an 18-month inquiry; its findings were submitted to parliament on 16 December.
According to a UN panel report released in April 2011, both government forces and the LTTE flouted international law and civilian rights in their military operations during the final five months of the war when tens of thousands died.
The government declared victory over the rebels in May 2009.
"Steps are needed to follow positive recommendations of the commission in a systematic and transparent manner for us to hold ourselves responsible," Rajiva Wijesinha, a parliamentarian and presidential adviser on the peace process, told IRIN.
Sixty pages of recommendations in the LLRC report include calls for a special commissioner to investigate alleged disappearances and criminal proceedings; implementation of an amendment to the Registration of Deaths Act which allows a next of kin to apply for a death certificate if a person is missing due to “subversive” activity; an independent advisory committee to examine the detention and arrest of persons in custody to address concerns about indefinite detention without due process under an anti-terrorist law; criminalization of forced or involuntary disappearances; an island-wide human rights education programme targeting security forces and police; a centralized database of detainees; addressing grievances from minority communities, including Muslims in the north and Tamils; and improved governance.
Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN
|Kulasekran Kugamathi, still searching for her eldest son, recruited by LTTE rebels|
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the recommendations have “serious shortcomings” and fail to “advance accountability for victims of Sri Lanka’s civil armed conflict” in a statement released on 17 December.
Hoping for change
While HRW along with other agencies and diplomats have questioned the impartiality and credibility of the commission - demanding an international inquiry thus far rejected by the government - Jeeva Ahilan, a recent returnee, who fled fighting in Kilinochchi District, still hopes the recommendations will lead to change.
"People came out and spoke openly [in fact-finding hearings] about their suffering and need for a dignified life," he said.
LLRC's fact-finding sessions in the north over the past year were well received among recent returnees who had fled fighting, he added.
"People are hopeful that their voices were heard and [that the report will be used] for development," said Ahilan.
But recommendations are only the first steps towards reconciliation, said another community activist from Jaffna District, also in the north.
"More work needs to be done at the grassroots level to unite [people from] the Sinhalese and Tamil communities," said Victor Karunairajan, who returned home from overseas after the war.
Economic development in minority Tamil communities is a "must", he concluded.
According to Jehan Perera, director of Colombo-based NGO National Peace Council, the recommendations are not likely to meet human rights organizations' expectations.
"[They] will not be able to address the issue of war crimes in the manner expected by human rights organizations on account of [the LLRC’s] limited mandate. The commission was set up to learn why a 2002 truce failed, and recommend ways to prevent the resurgence of ethnic conflict.”
Perera called for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission based on the South African model, with a mandate to address the entire period of the war, waged for decades, rather than only the last phase.
The LLRC could only hear evidence, but not investigate, Jayasuriya Welimuna, head of the national chapter in Sri Lanka of corruption watchdog NGO Transparency International, told IRIN.
The LLRC report’s authors recognized past commissions’ recommendations for investigations have gone unimplemented, and “give rise to understandable criticism and skepticism regarding government-appointed commissions from which the LLRC has not been spared.”
Bharathi Iniyavan, 45, who spoke to IRIN from Kilinochchi, said LLRC's work was in vain if the recommendations were not enacted.
"There are commissions here and there but what we need is action on the ground to change lives," he added. "We need action not research."