A spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today that the Secretary-General has appointed a three-member panel of experts to advise him on the issue of war crimes reportedly committed in Sri Lanka during the war between the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels. Is this the international investigation that Amnesty International has been calling for? No, unfortunately. According to the spokesperson’s statement, the UN panel will look into “modalities, applicable international standards and comparative experience” on how to provide accountability for reported violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. While the panel is to advise the UN Secretary-General, it hopes to cooperate with Sri Lankan officials and is supposed to be available as a resource to the Sri Lankan government.
The Sri Lankan government, for its part, is reportedly not happy with the Secretary-General naming the panel. One Sri Lankan official yesterday, in anticipation of the panel being named today, said that it amounted to “an attempt to provide oxygen” to the Tamil Tigers (who were militarily defeated a year ago). Another Sri Lankan official called the move by the UN “unwarranted” as the Sri Lankan government had recently appointed its own reconciliation commission to look into events during the war.
But as Amnesty International’s report, “Twenty Years of Make-Believe: Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry,” documents, the Sri Lankan government has a poor record of holding its own forces accountable for violations of human rights and war crimes. One of the prior commissions of inquiry described in our report was a 2006 commission set up by the Sri Lankan government to investigate several high-profile cases of human rights violations. That commission’s activities were observed, at the Sri Lankan’s government’s request, by an “International Independent Group of Eminent Persons” (known as IIGEP). After a little more than a year in operation, IIGEP quit in protest, saying that the commission’s proceedings didn’t satisfy basic international standards for such commissions.
As it happens, Mr. Marzuki Darusman, the Chair of the new UN panel, was also a member of IIGEP. This fact has already been used by a Sri Lankan official to criticize the new UN panel. I hope Mr. Darusman’s experience on the new panel will turn out more positively than the IIGEP experience, but judging from the Sri Lankan government’s reactions so far, I’m not very optimistic. I do hope that the UN panel will help lead to an independent international investigation into war crimes and human rights abuses committed by both sides during the war in Sri Lanka, sooner rather than later.