Human rights activists and academics in Sri Lanka remain divided over how best to proceed in the investigation of alleged war crimes committed during the final days of the country's decades-long civil war.
“I think right now there is still room for a robust national inquiry that meets international standards,” Jehan Perera, director of the National Peace Council (NPC), a Colombo-based advocacy group, told IRIN.
“Let me make it very clear - domestic incentives for change are close to nothing,” Kumaravadivel Guruparan, a lecturer at the Faculty of Law at Jaffna University, countered, arguing that international pressure had built up precisely because local mechanisms had failed.
On 27 March, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted for a resolution to launch an international inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by both the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the final stages of the 1983-2009 conflict.
Rights groups have said that up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed by Sri Lankan forces while defeating the LTTE, a charge Colombo has repeatedly denied.
The US-backed resolution passed with 23 votes for, 12 against and 12 abstaining.
However, Colombo has refused to cooperate or to recognize any investigation launched by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) as recommended by the resolution, making its ability to gather evidence and access witnesses difficult.
“We will not submit to any investigation by the Office of the High Commissioner,” Foreign Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris stated on 7 April, contending that the government was continuing to implement mechanisms in accordance with recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission established in May 2010 and comprised of eight members appointed by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. "Sri Lanka will not participate in this inquiry,” he said.
Peiris said the government was cooperating on a joint needs assessment with the UN in the former conflict zone and also carrying out a nationwide survey of the families of the missing with the International Committee of the Red Cross, while Tamil leader Gajan Ponnambalam described the prospects of any domestic-led investigation being credible as “ludicrous”.
“As far as we are concerned, for reconciliation, there has to be accountability,” Ponnambalam said.
But amid the government’s refusal to cooperate with what is now the third UNHRC resolution about investigating rights violations during the conflict, Sri Lankan activists say international pressure has not lost meaning.
“International pressure is important. But for it to have real change it needs to address the underlying structural problems that plague this country,” Perera said, adding that he believes some countries that abstained from the UNHRC vote, or voted against it, might eventually come out in favour of an international probe, while others will remain steadfastly against it.
“In the case of India, given that it does not want the precedent of an international inquiry, it will do everything it can to help Sri Lanka get out of this situation,” he argued, “either by slowing down an international inquiry or helping [Sri Lanka] to set up its own inquiry with some kind of international aegis.”
Call for more international pressure
According to Jaffna University’s Guruparan, those in favour of the international investigation need to mount pressure beyond their votes.
“Half-baked [international] interventions will only embolden Colombo,” he said. “There is no political will from within the international community for strong actions either.”
US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Michele Sison said that right now international backers of the resolution were not contemplating punitive actions against Sri Lanka.
“We are not at this point discussing sanctions,” she told reporters on 3 April, adding that Washington would wait for the oral report by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay due to be published in August, and a full report six months later as per the resolution.
In June 2010, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed a panel of experts to look into the progress Colombo had made since May 2009 in addressing alleged violations of human rights and humanitarian law during the final stages of the conflict and to recommend ways the government and the UN could better support this process.
Released on 25 August 2011, the panel’s 196-page report recommended that the Sri Lankan government respond to the allegations by initiating an effective accountability process starting with genuine investigations.