Top human rights groups in South Africa have strongly criticized their government for inviting two Sri Lankan ministers accused of links with alleged war criminals for a study tour to Pretoria.
The island nation's foreign minister Ali Sabry and minister for Prison Affairs and Constitutional Reforms Dr Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe were invited by the South African minister for International Relations and Cooperation Dr. Naledi Pandor.
The purpose of the visit according to Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry was to ‘learn from the South African experience in regard to the establishment of, and work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to promote reconciliation in Sri Lanka’.
Both these ministers serving under president Ranil Wickremesinghe are closely associated with the Rajapaksa’s and have served under ousted president Gotabaya Rajapaksa who is internationally accused of serious human rights violations and war crimes. He was the ‘all powerful' defence secretary while his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa was the president during whose regime the brutal civil war came to a bloody end with thousands of Tamils being killed, maimed, and seriously wounded. That pain and suffering are still endured by them.
While the war-affected Tamils and the international community including the UN have demanded a credible international mechanism to inquire into the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Government of Sri Lanka has gone back on the promise given to the UN Human Rights Council to co-opt with the international community.
The earlier government of president Maithripala Sirisena committed at the UNHRC about cooperating with international bodies. However, the successive government under Gotabaya Rajapaksa negated the commitment given to the UN body.
“While the stated intent is lofty, the invitation to the Sri Lankan officials by the government of South Africa is concerning, in view of allegations of ongoing human rights violations, the suppression of civil society in Sri Lanka and a failure by the Sri Lankan government to ensure criminal accountability for gross human rights violations perpetrated during the 1983 - 2009 civil war” Human Rights groups led by the Foundation for Human Rights (FHR) has said in a statement.
“During the visit, the two Ministers paid a courtesy call on the South African president Cyril Ramaphosa and held bilateral meetings with the minister of International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa Naledi Pandoor and the minister of Justice and Constitutional and Constitutional Development Ronald Lamola.
They also met with former South African president Thabo Mbeki as well as Roelf Meyer, former minister of Constitutional Development and one of the chief negotiators, along with president Ramaphosa, for the end of apartheid in South Africa and paving the way to the first democratic elections in the country,” said a Sri Lanka foreign ministry statement.
“Meetings were also held with officials from the Public Prosecutions Office of South Africa, the Pan African Bar Association of South Africa, “Freedom park”, “In Transformation Initiative” and the “Institute for Justice and Reconciliation” it added.
The United Nations has continuously said that some of these violations may amount to serious crimes such as crimes against humanity and war crimes.
At least 40,000 to 70,000 people died in the final phase of the war between Jan-May 2009 according to the UN. During that final phase internally displaced Tamils were boxed in a small strip of land in the Mullaitivu district which came under heavy artillery shelling and air attack.
FHR led human rights bodies have also pointed out a case brought against ousted president Gotabaya Rajapaksa on the basis of the principle of universal jurisdiction in Singapore for his alleged role in the gross human rights violations and serious international crimes committed in Sri Lanka during the last stages of the civil war.
A separate case was also brought against Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the US in 2019. During his time as the country’s Executive President, he is accused of appointing his close allies to powerful positions- in many cases against established law and convention.
Some of such appointees-mostly his former military colleagues-have been sanctioned by countries including the United States and Canada for their alleged involvement in the commission of gross human rights violations.
South African Human Rights bodies have questioned the credibility of both the ministers who were on a ‘study tour on reconciliation and transitional justice’ given their alleged background.
“Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ali Sabry was the personal lawyer of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and acted on his behalf in multiple corruption cases. Before becoming a Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sabry was the Minister of Justice, which raised serious concerns of a conflict of interest given that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the President at that time. Dr Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe admitted that he had intervened with the Attorney General to prevent the arrest of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the Avant Garde floating armoury case”.
The ‘Yahapalana Government’ of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe in October 2015 co-sponsored a United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution, resolution 30/1, in which the government promised to implement measures including four transitional justice processes i.e. a mechanism to search for the disappeared, an office for reparations, a truth commission and a judicial mechanism.
To date, only one of these measures, the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP), has been established, which too has been rejected by the families of the missing persons, who have called it a sham. Although the said OMP has been established, it has not even found one missing person so far and many of its offices in the North and East have been closed. People from the far east in Mullaitivu have to travel to Jaffna in the North to register their complaints or hand over reference material or seek answers from them.
The UNHRC in its concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of Sri Lanka on the 24th of March this year called on the Sri Lanka government to “intensify its efforts to ensure accountability for all past human rights violations” and to “refrain from appointing or promoting alleged perpetrators of human rights violations to high positions in the government”.
“The manner in which the government of Sri Lanka failed to implement its undertaking to establish credible transitional justice mechanisms, in line with the co-sponsored UN resolutions, calls into question its bonafide,” the joint statement issued by the Human Rights bodies of South Africa says.
The collective Human Rights bodies of South Africa have called upon their government to engage with Sri Lanka to ensure that the government ends the prevalent impunity for gross human rights violations and continuing suppression of dissent and repression of civil society organisations, and creates an environment conducive to a meaningful transitional justice process in line with the recommendations by various UN entities.
“Civil Society Organisations are critical role players in the design, setting up and operationalisation of any transitional justice mechanism. And, as such in its interactions with Sri Lanka, the South African government should insist that perception of fairness, transparency, inclusivity and legitimacy of the transitional justice process is critical for its success”.
FHR-led bodies have expressed their disappointment over the invitation to the two Sri Lankan ministers who are accused of having close links with alleged war criminals including the Rajapaksas and a plethora of past and present serving Tri services.
“By extending the invitation to two individuals who are seen as lacking credibility and legitimacy given their close ties with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the South African government is legitimising a process that is deeply flawed”.
The ministers have now returned back to the country.
“The interactions with the South African Minister of Justice and other experts provided valuable insights with regard to the South African experience in the establishment of their Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” said the statement by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.