Endgame for the Rajapaksas says Hodge

Amanda Hodge, Courtesy of The Australian, 18 September 2015, with the title “UN report on Tamil war marks beginning of end for Rajapaksas”

Sri Lanka’s new national unity government is expected to seek international support for a watered-down version of a “hybrid” war crimes court, using local judges but foreign investigators, in a process that could mark the beginning of a reckoning for the former ruling Rajapaksa family. The UN Human Rights Council report released on Wednesday found reasonable grounds to believe the Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tigers committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during and directly after the long civil war, though it did not identify suspected perpetrators as some had speculated it might.

MR atmatara 2014--AFP Then Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse at a Victory Day parade in the southern town of Matara on May 18, 2014. Source: AFP

The report found “patterns of grave violations” between 2002 and 2011 and that it was likely “tens of thousands lost their lives” in the final stages of the war. Its key recommendation was for a “hybrid” court including international judges, prosecutors, and investigators to try war crimes and crimes against humanity, “most likely” committed by the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said “years of denials and cover-ups” meant a purely domestic war crimes trial would give little solace to the many victims of the three-decade war.

The government, elected last month, has issued only a brief and muted response to the 300-page report promising to deliver justice and consult widely on the mechanisms and measures needed. One senior MP, Rajitha Senaratne, told the BBC the government favoured an “internationally accepted local inquiry”, rather than an international trial, but added there would be no indemnity from prosecution for former president Mahinda Rajapaksa — credited with ending the war — or members of his family.

“Where even the president or other commanders or defence secretaries — whoever — is ­involved, our government is ready to take action,” he said. So far there has been no official response from the still-powerful Rajapaksa family, which worked so hard to foil the international ­investigation, though there are concerns loyalists could seek to ­ignite nationalism within the majority Sinhala community. Many still see the former president as a hero for ending the war and resent international criticism. “I think some of the Rajapaksas will face a very difficult situation but we should not underestimate them,” human rights lawyer Lakshan Dias said yesterday. We are not yet a stable country and they are still a force.”

Some observers are tipping the US will work with Sri Lanka to sponsor a watered-down motion ahead of the September 30 UNHRC vote that promises an accountable domestic system with a high standard of international monitoring — allowing the government to punish some within the old regime without alienating its Sinhala nationalist allies.

But just 24 hours after the ­release of the report, deep divisions are emerging among ­government allies over the best way forward.

MA Sumanthiran, an MP and spokesman for the Tamil ­National Alliance party, said only a judicial process involving international as well as Sri Lankan judges and prosecutors could ­ensure justice for the “victim community”.

“We have pressed for a resolution to be adopted that incorporates all of the recommendations. There must be international ­judges on the panel,” he told The Australian.

Visaka Dharmadasa, who heads the Sri Lankan Association for War-Affected Women, said she believed the new government would strike the right balance by accepting international supervision and technical support while maintaining its commitment to a domestic mechanism.

“There’s been a very big change in the political system and people are very hopeful about this ­government,” she said. “We have to strike a balance between giving this government an opportunity, as well as protecting the rights of the people. I am a mother of a missing ­soldier. But whether my son was in the LTTE or in the military, my first priority is to know the truth.”

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