14 March 2012

Let’s take accountability seriously

The United States has tabled a resolution on Sri Lanka at the 18th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.  While it appears on the surface to endorse the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), calling for the swift implementation of recommendations, the resolution includes a demand for the kind of oversight mechanism that the USA itself has not and will not allow with respect to her general conduct.  These include the conduct of military operations, the treatment of prisoners and the overall internal processes of accountability and loopholes in the law that consistently let perpetrators off the hook. 

These machinations are complemented by the work of international human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, both well-known for selectivity and chronic dependency on unsubstantiated claims made by individuals and organizations with dubious track records, including those who have unabashedly funded and/or supported terrorism.  Amnesty International, for example, received donations from known LTTE groups.  The links between such organizations and LTTE front organizations like CTC and TGTE are already well known.

The moves against Sri Lanka have also been buttressed by unprincipled institutions such as Channel 4 which pays scant respect to even the basic principles of media ethic and appears not to understand the meaning of veracity, verifiability and the reliability of sources.  

It is clear that all these three groups are working with together, targeting the member states of the UNHCR.  This campaign is now ready to fire another salvo with the release of a ‘new’ Channel 4 ‘documentary’ in Geneva.  

This production, titled ‘War crimes unpunished’ is said to focus on heavy shelling of civilians and a hospital in the ‘No Fire Zone’, strategic denial of food and medicine to hundreds and thousands of trapped civilians, killing civilians during the ‘rescue mission’ and the systematic execution of naked and bound LTTE prisoners and footage of a 12-year old boy who has been brutally executed.

The timing is of course politically motivated.  If it were pure journalistic pursuit of truth, then whatever ‘evidence’ would have been in the public domain the moment it reached Channel 4.  Channel 4, moreover, in all its previous releases have shown a remarkable tendency to hide the terrorism-associated histories of its main characters.  It has fudged numbers, citing and/or extrapolating from claims made by individuals forced to mouth numbers at gun point by the LTTE.  It has shown no investigative zeal into the activities and links of its key contacts, LTTE fronts in the West.   Most crucially, nothing that Channel 4 has shown so far indicates systemic or policy-related abuse by the security forces.  Channel 4, if it was really interested in the issue of human rights, would train its cameras on the party that has tabled this resolution, the USA, whose violations make the kinds of allegations leveled at Sri Lanka look like the transgressions of errant schoolboys. 

Still, it is no doubt incumbent on the Sri Lankan authorities to conducts its own investigations into such allegations, including those leveled by Channel 4 and as recommended by the LLRC.  With respect to civilian deaths and allegations of summary execution, what is already available in the public domain or the ‘open sources’ clearly indicate that investigation is warranted, and that is exactly what the LLRC has recommended.  What has to be done is to keep things sober. Channel 4 has a stake in sensationalizing things and pandering to emotions and that with a motive to support pernicious moves against a sovereign nation is to be expected.  The law has to defer to reason. 

There are certainly photographs which ‘show’ summary execution.  The authenticity must be examined and if it is the genuine article then prompt action must be taken to investigate and bring to book the offender(s).  Even though it is US policy to throw out Human Rights caveats when dealing with suspected terrorists, this is not good enough reason for Sri Lanka to follow suit. 

Sri Lanka, contrary to assertions and in stark contrast to how the US deals with military offenses, has a long history of zero-tolerance of deviance.  This was evident in the trial of the Lieutenant and Sergeant responsible for the rape and murder of Premawathi Manamperi in 1971.  In the case of Krishanthi Coomaraswamy (1996), the culprit was identified and charged.  Of the 4 accused, three were sentenced to death.  In another incident in 1996, where V. Rajini was gang raped and murdered, 4 soldiers were identified, put on trial and sentenced to death.  It was a verdict by an all-Sinhala jury.  It is good to note that white police officers of the LAPD responsible for violations against blacks in Los Angeles were all acquitted by an all-white jury. 

With respect to what happened during the last stages of the war, the LLRC has clearly mandated investigations.  The Attorney General and Police have been tasked to look into all abductions and disappearances.  This is not easy work because many among the ‘disappeared’ were LTTE cadres who fled to other countries.  It is necessary work and enforced haste will only be disruptive. 

The current moves spearheaded by the USA and supported by Channel 4 focuses on civilian casualties and excessive use of force including shelling.  As of now, there is clear evidence that the LTTE shelled a church during the last stages of the war.  Civilian deaths due to shelling by the Army are for the most part claims and accusations of shelling hospitals deliberately remain unfounded.  As for essential humanitarian supplies being deliberately blocked, the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming except for the fact that it was the LTTE pilfered heavily, an outcome no one could prevent. 

Most crucially, in addition to general military procedures, a 5-member Court of Inquiry has been appointed by virtue of the powers vested in the Army Commander by Regulation 4 of the Courts of Inquiry Regulations, read with the Regulation 2 of the Army Disciplinary Regulations, to probe into all observations made by the LLRC regarding civilian casualties and also to probe with respect to the contents in the Channel 4 video footage, irrespective of the authenticity or otherwise of the video presentation.

Such a Court of Inquiry is an initial and necessary fact-finding inquiry akin to a non-summary inquiry by a Magistrate. If there is a prima facie case disclosed against any person from the evidence led before the Court of Inquiry, a General Court Martial is convened to try the alleged offenders. A General Court Martial has the jurisdiction that is identical to a High Court Trial-at-Bar and can award any sentence, including the death penalty.

One of the objections raised has been the issue of ‘independence’, but that is downright silly because it implies that no military can investigate abuses by its own personnel.  It implies, further, that all allegations of misconduct by any military outfit of any country have to be investigated by another country or some outside agency.

So far, in the open sources, there is photographic evidence of one 12 year old boy who has died of gunshot injuries, Prabhakaran’s younger son.  If there is any evidence of this boy having been alive close to the time he was shot, then it indicates execution.  There is ample evidence that the LTTE used children as suicide bombers, including a child who was sent along with fleeing civilians and programmed to detonate at the receiving point manned by the Army.  The USA would, following a statement issued by its Attorney General, think nothing of eliminating a suspected terrorist regardless of age, gender or health because of the perceived threat. Sri Lanka can and must do better. 

The Court of Inquiry is mandated to investigate such incidents and moreover to institute a witness-protection mechanism to facilitate the unearthing of evidence. 

Sri Lanka should be commended for these measures which came on the heels of the LLRC report.  It is scandalous to demand haste, especially when the demand is made by a known abuser of human rights and moreover one that has a nothing policy in terms of accountability. 

Justice is about truth.  It is not about frills and fabrication.  Not in the ideal, anyway.  It is about sober, painstaking, methodical and comprehensive work.   The wails and screams of terrorist lovers, ill-educated and mischievous operators including global thugs and mouthpieces of criminals against humanity make good headlines, but the members of the Human Rights Council should not be swayed by any of it.
Balance, sanity, an understanding of context (Sri Lanka is just emerging from a devastating 30 year long struggle against terrorism) and an appreciation of all the positives under extremely trying circumstances, is what can help Sri Lanka and its process of reconciliation.  Bullying does not.  

[first published in 'The Nation', March 11, 2012]