President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a three member panel on Thursday (21) to probe the findings of the previous commissions of inquiry appointed by Sri Lanka to investigate human rights abuses committed during the last phase of the armed conflict with the LTTE in 2009.
The panel has been appointed as the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) prepares to discuss human rights in Sri Lanka at its next session in February-March 2021.
Leading rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned foreign governments not to be misled by this latest internal inquiry calling it a "disingenuous attempt to avert urgently needed international action."
They noted that Sri Lanka has a long history of commissions of inquiry that have repeatedly failed to deliver justice and reconciliation for victims of human rights violations.
Sri Lanka’s grim record is under scrutiny at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, so the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has announced yet another internal inquiry, HRW said in a statement.
"There have been at least a dozen domestic commissions of inquiry during the decades of Sri Lanka’s civil war, often created to forestall international pressure on human rights. None has led to prosecutions, or helped families trace missing relatives. Their findings have often gone unpublished, and recommendations never implemented. International observers, UN experts, and the UN high commissioner for human rights have repeatedly highlighted deep systemic problems in Sri Lanka’s judicial processes," HRW said.
HRW pointed out that the UNHRC has engaged Sri Lanka for years but the atrocities at the end of the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam shocked the world in 2009, and a series of UN reports found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In 2012, the council passed a resolution calling on Sri Lanka to implement recommendations of an earlier inquiry. When that did not happen, it recognized the need for an international role to address international crimes.
In 2015, Sri Lanka joined a consensus resolution of the Human Rights Council with commitments to ensure truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence including an accountability mechanism involving international judges, prosecutors, investigators, and defense lawyers. "There was progress, albeit slow, which encouraged the council to extend the mandate," HRW said.
However, Human Rights Watch observed that with the new government coming into power, that progress has been reversed.
"But in November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president and quickly reversed that progress. Last February, the government said it would no longer honor its commitments in the council resolution. This is not surprising. As defense secretary between 2005-2015, Rajapaksa was implicated in many of the worst abuses. As president, he has appointed alleged perpetrators to senior positions, and even pardoned one of the few soldiers ever jailed for killing civilians," they noted.
They also said that fear has returned to Sri Lanka as victims of past abuses, activists, journalists, lawyers, and even police investigators and are silenced. Rajapaska’s government has persecuted vulnerable minorities, and this month it demolished a monument to Tamil civilian victims of the war.
"The warning signs are obvious. It is crucial that the Human Rights Council adopts a new resolution to ensure continued monitoring, as well as the collection, analysis, and preservation of evidence for future prosecutions. Member countries should not be swayed by the latest outrage or false promises of Sri Lanka’s government," HRW added.