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OPINION | David L. Phillips

Winning the peace in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka had an opportunity to heal the country’s wounds after defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009. However, it is more polarized now as a society than at any time since the Tigers were defeated. A UN panel, established to consider allegations that as many as 40,000 civilians died during the war’s bloody climax, concluded that both sides violated international humanitarian and human rights law, highlighting the need for full accountability and justice. Not only has the government failed to address the root causes of conflict, it has also failed to conduct credible domestic investigations of alleged war crimes, further undermining reconciliation.

In December 2011, Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission recommended steps to advance the goal of national reconciliation and sustainable peace. Its report was welcomed by members of the international community. The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution calling on the government to create an action plan for implementing the commission’s recommendations.

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The national action plan has disappointed. It focuses on process rather than product. The plan includes only 82 of the commission’s 285 recommendations; creates committees to study recommendations; and assigns responsibility for implementation to bodies that do not exist. Failure to implement the recommendations has contributed to a widening “trust deficit” between Sri Lankans.

Confidence is also undermined by the government’s regressive and discriminatory policies. The Prevention of Terrorism Act allows persons to be held for up to 30 days with unlimited extensions. The act was adopted during the war, and should be repealed.

The 300,000-strong Sri Lankan army maintains a large presence in the north and east. Though many checkpoints have been withdrawn, the Jaffna district is still a high security zone. The army is extensively involved in economic activities, such as farming and fishing. Just last week, it opened a shopping center. It also recently confiscated land to build 10,000 houses in Kilinochchi.

Militarization affects other aspects of civic life. The ministry of defense performs functions better suited for a civilian authority, such as the registration process for local and international organizations offering humanitarian and development assistance.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission recommends devolution through power-sharing. However, political dialogue has stalled. The Tamil National Alliance, comprised of democratically elected parliamentarians, entered into negotiations with the government more than two years ago. It presented detailed proposals for local government, including police powers, and fiscal decentralization, as well as expanded use of the Tamil language in local administration. The government did not respond, and its negotiators did not even show up for the last three scheduled meetings.

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Tamils demand democracy. But local elections still have not been held in the Northern Province. Elections are envisioned for September 2013, but delays have undermined confidence.

In response to recommendations on accountability in the commission report, the army created in 2012 a five-person court of inquiry headed by a major general. The court was charged with referring cases to the attorney general for prosecution. However, no cases have been referred to date.

In mid-February, the ministry of defense issued a report dismissing suggestions that it was involved in disappearances, detentions, and other human rights violations. It disparaged such accusations as a conspiracy of the West and the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. A follow-up report is expected to exonerate the armed forces from responsibility for civilian deaths at the end of the war.

Investigation by the ministry of defense of Sri Lanka’s armed forces is far from objective. Given the government’s failure to undertake credible investigations, it is necessary to launch an independent international investigation of alleged war crimes under the auspices of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The UN should establish a mechanism to systematically review Sri Lanka’s human rights record at the upcoming session of the UNHRC in Geneva. Without monitoring and accountability, Sri Lanka will not realize its vast potential. The battle may be over, but conflict is ongoing.

David L. Phillips is director of the program on peace-building and human rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

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