SRI LANKA: IIGEP’s quitting is no surprise, but what next?

The announcement by the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) that they are quitting the Presidential Commission of Inquiry comes as no surprise at all. The surprise is as to why the IIGEP agreed to be part of this process in the first place. The Presidential Commission was so obviously an eye-wash and the IIGEP was only called upon to give respectability to a very deliberate design to subvert the process of law for which purpose alone this Commission was appointed.

Why the international community and the members of the IIGEP itself were unable to see through this devious scheme at the very outset is a matter that deserves some reflection. Indeed, some reflection on the matter can also throw light on why the international community has so far been unable to have a clear view of what is happening in Sri Lanka and why impunity has become such an entrenched practice within the country. The Asian Human Rights Commission has repeatedly pointed out that impunity in Sri Lanka is a matter of state policy, whether the violations that are dealt with are from the South, North or the East, and that this policy has been entrenched through consistent practice since 1971.

When the state relies entirely on the military and the police for the suppression of all persons and organisations which it believes should be suppressed, the same state cannot pursue a policy that will discourage the military and the police from pursuing their targets as ruthlessly as possible. When the state sanctions, and in fact commands its armed forces to act in the manner it wishes, irrespective as to whether they observe the restraints that are expected to be observed even in the midst of a conflict, the same state cannot be expected to take any credible action in order to ensure that its forces act within the accepted norms and standards. As the former defense minister, Ranjan Wijeratne told parliament, “These things cannot be done according to the law”. In Sri Lanka that short sentence sums up the state policy used for suppressing elements that the state believe should be suppressed, whether they be Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims.

The very foundation of the law in Sri Lanka has changed for the worse. The 1978 Constitution transformed Sri Lanka into an authoritarian state with the executive president having powers equal to an absolute monarchy. With that the structure and ideology of the state changed. The conduct of all affairs, including those dealing with the conflicts takes place within this framework.

The agents of the international community itself wanted to have a more simplified version of the reality. They treated the Sri Lankan conflict as a simple conflict that, if the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE could agree upon some measures could easily be resolved. In taking this view they failed to understand the complexity of this problem in Sri Lanka, the history of the challenge faced by the rule of law and democracy in the country and the collapse of state institutions.

One particular issue alone can illustrate the naivety with which the international community has regarded the Sri Lankan crisis; this is the issue of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. The Constitution should be the supreme law of the country if that country is a democracy. From 2005 up to now the government of Sri Lanka has deliberately refused the appointment of the Constitutional Council thereby creating a situation within which the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was relegated to the dustbin. No amount of local and international pressure was able to make any change to this situation. Under such circumstances for the IIGEP or its promoters to think that the Sri Lankan government would take their advice seriously on how to conduct investigations into human rights violations which it has itself directly or indirectly authorised was, to say the least, sheer naivety.

Reading the dispatches from the spokesman for the government in replies to the call for inquiries into human rights violations leaves no doubt that the government was fully aware that to conduct inquiries into military operations and at the same time continue to allow them free reign were two incompatible strategies.

What is needed is a comprehensive understanding of the problem of Sri Lanka which is not just an ethnic crisis. It is a total crisis of the entire legal fabric of the country and the political system. What is required from both local and international initiatives is to create space to deal with the entire issue through a comprehensive plan of action based on an understanding of the actual situation.

This is not just a task that the democratic movement and the human rights community face in Sri Lanka only similar problems are faced in many places around the world. An attempt to understand the Sri Lankan crisis in depth may help to find more serious approaches to deal with problems which are matters of life and death, not only to large sections of the population but to a nation as a whole.

We hope that the bitter lessons learned by the IIGEP in Sri Lanka will lead to humble reflections about where the very strategy itself was flawed. A critical review by those involved in the IIGEP as well as those others who have watched this extremely sad episode can help in the deepening of the understanding of the theoretical nature, as well as the practical nature in dealing with the issues of justice in conflict situations. Mere calls to end impunity or making generalized recommendations are of little use. Concrete studies leading to specific suggestions that can form the basis for realistic plans-of-action is what is needed, not only to deal with the acute crisis in Sri Lanka but also to deal with other similar situations.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-058-2008
Countries : Sri Lanka,