The need for a UN Commission of Inquiry on accountability in Sri Lanka

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), the Rehabilitation and Research Centre for Torture Victims (RCT) and REDRESS welcome the publication of the Report of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka.

The three human rights organisations call on the UN Secretary-General to act on the recommendations made by his Panel of Experts without delay. The Expert Panel examined the conduct of the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the final stages of the war between September 2008 and May 2009.

The three experts considered information from a large number of sources, including AHRC, RCT and REDRESS, and documented a number of violations. The panel “found credible allegations … of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law … [committed by both parties], some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The Government of Sri Lanka’s response to the Panel report makes it highly unlikely that it will follow the recommendation to “immediately commence genuine investigations” or undertake the other accountability measures listed. Carla Ferstman, REDRESS’s Director, stressed:

“It is imperative that the UN Secretary-General heeds the Panel’s recommendation. The Panel was very clear that the Secretary-General should act immediately to ‘establish an independent international mechanism [to] conduct investigations independently into the alleged violations….’”

The UN Secretary-General indicated that he will only act if the Government of Sri Lanka agrees to a Commission of Inquiry or if other intergovernmental bodies, such as the UN Human Rights Council, mandate such a step. Neither of this is likely to happen any time soon.

If the reports findings are to be taken seriously, it is crucial that the UN SecretaryGeneral uses his powers to set up an inquiry. Indeed, this has been done in other situations, such as in response to violations in Guinea and in the Benazir Bhutto assassination inquiry. Relying on others to act, in contrast, will delay if not frustrate altogether the implementation of the Panel’s recommendations.

The UN must not compound its failure to protect civilians during the war that was highlighted in the Panel’s report. Basil Fernando, AHRC’s Director for Policy and Programme Development, said:

“Doing nothing would be a travesty for the victims, civil society in Sri Lanka and the international human rights system. It is high time for the UN to act on the recommendations of its Expert Panel considering the history of impunity and breakdown of the rule of law in Sri Lanka.” He added: “This is all the more imperative given the stark findings of the Panel that ‘the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace.’”