Namini Wijedasa, courtesy of LakbimaNews, 27 November 2011
It has been a slow journey but the government is finally accepting that civilians might have died as a result of military action during the final stages of its war with the LTTE. This change in position is attributable in no small measure to the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which is due to be released shortly. Although its contents are not officially known, it is reported that the LLRC has recommended further investigation of certain incidents that witnesses say happened. The LLRC process has shown that information about the battle–how it was conducted, who did what, when and where–is widely available among people in the North and East. Thirty months after the end of the war, it is no longer viable to maintain a tenuous position of ‘zero civilian casualty.’ Indeed, it would be foolhardy and dishonest to do so. Speaking at the ‘Inaugural National Conference on Reconciliation’ at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies in Colombo, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa spoke in more detail about civilian casualties than he has possibly ever done in public. It was not the first time the government took a tentative step towards admitting to civilian casualties. Earlier this year, its publication Humanitarian Operation Factual Analysis (produced in response to the devastating report of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s panel of experts) admitted: “Despite the clear intent of the Government of Sri Lanka and the numerous precautions taken, it was impossible in a battle of this magnitude, against a ruthless opponent actively endangering civilians, for civilian casualties to be avoided.” But this was all it dared to say on that subject. Last week, the defence establishment edged a bit further. Defence Secretary Rajapaksa said the government has made a proper assessment of the number of civilians killed and missing during the last stages of the conflict. Arbitrary figures of between 10,000 and 40,000, he insisted, had “no basis in reality.” The assessment was done by the Department of Census and Statistics through Tamil public officials in the relevant districts of the North and East. The questionnaire specifically addressed the issue of people who died or went missing during the ‘humanitarian operation.’ The government has identified by name all such persons, Rajapaksa said. The results of the census will be released in the near future. Dead and missing: The defence secretary emphasized, however, that there are several categories of dead and missing in those areas. These are people who died of natural causes and of accidents, those who left the country illegally, those who died whilst fighting as members of the LTTE, those who died as a result of being coerced to fight by the LTTE, those who died as a result of resisting the LTTE and those whose deaths occurred due to military action. “It is only for the deaths of people in this last category that the Sri Lankan military can bear any responsibility,” the defence secretary insisted. In effect, when you take away all those categories of victims, it is possible that only a small number of people will be classified as having died purely due to military action. But this isn’t necessarily the defence establishment’s fault. The reality is that line between civilian and combatant was exceptionally blurred towards the end of the war. The LTTE was in recruitment overdrive. It was a terrible battle where a civilian could turn combatant overnight. The cadres fought predominantly in civilian attire. These realities are often ignored or glossed over by pro-LTTE groups that cry genocide. It is hoped that the questionnaire had also asked whether the dead or missing person was a combatant at the time he or she died or went missing. The defence secretary also maintained that if, in future, any substantial evidence is provided on crimes committed by its personnel, the Sri Lankan military will not hesitate to take appropriate action. This is a positive undertaking but the proof of the pudding really is in the eating. The government must understand that taking action against criminal elements in the armed forces is not a victimisation of war heroes. Instead, prosecuting the bad eggs is tantamount to paying homage to the many good soldiers that fought according to international humanitarian and human rights law.
War crimes trial: But accountability, an official recently told this reporter, is a ‘Western obsession.’ The LLRC report will delve much deeper into the conflict and this is something the West and international human rights organizations will have to accept. If all they want from the LLRC process is a war crimes trial, they will be disappointed. “There is a Western obsession with accountability for what happened only in the last three weeks of fighting and this doesn’t do justice to the whole notion of accountability,” the official said. “We must look back, that is accountability. And we must look ahead, that is reconciliation. Both are important and it is hoped that the report will be multi-dimensional in that sense.”
LLRC – recommended reading, but…
The commissioners (see main story) spent a year coming up with what is hoped are strong observations. It is expected that a range of international humanitarian law issues have been handled. With regard to accountability, it has been reported that violations across the board are addressed – such as disappearances, missing persons, issues in freedom of association, media freedom and governance. Everything now depends on the release of the 400-page commission report and the implementation of its recommendations. Even the LLRC’s five simple interim recommendations were not been carried out fully. Where is the guarantee that many pages of observations and suggestions will not meet the same fate, if not worse? To ignore or disregard the report, in the hope that it will go away like all of Sri Lanka’s other commission reports, would be a grave mistake. “They will be wasting the only insurance policy they have,” said the official quoted in the story.