The government’s recent declaration of its willingness to take up the issue of war crimes comes after the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission submitted its final report to the President. Among the LLRC recommendations leaked to the media is one that calls for an investigation into the human rights violations and possible war crimes that occurred in the last phase of the war. The LLRC itself could not take on this task as it was outside its mandate. The government has the support of its international allies in this regard to accomplish in a few years what other countries have sometimes taken decades to do. Yasushi Akashi, who served as a special envoy of the Japanese government during the war, with a mandate to look into issues of Peace Building, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction recently visited Sri Lanka for the opening of the Colombo-Matara expressway. He stressed the need for genuine reconciliation in the country after war.
He said a national body could initially probe allegations of war crimes in the last stages of the war to defeat the LTTE. The photographs of the meeting he had with President Rajapaksa give an impression of warmth that has been lacking in many other interactions of Sri Lankan government leaders with the international community. It appears that the President did not take umbrage at what the Japanese peace envoy said. This shift needs to be welcomed and supported as Japan is doing. At the same time it is also important to remember that Sri Lanka did not win the war against the LTTE entirely on its own through the political leadership of President Rajapaksa and the military leadership of the armed forces commanders. Sri Lanka received much international support in this regard from the international community. The assistance given ranged from military equipment to sharing of intelligence and a curbing of the LTTE through legal bans and blocking their military procurements. At that time the government gave implicit assurances of a political solution after the war in return for the assistance it was obtaining. President Rajapaksa in particular kept on repeating 13th Amendment plus as a mantra. This is a commitment that needs to be kept. Recently the government has been showing more willingness to accept that civilian casualties did occur, owing to the nature of a war against the LTTE. This concession was first made by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the launching of its formal response to the UN Panel report on alleged human rights violations in the last phase of the war and also the UK Channel-4 programme that purports to show some of these violations. The latest concession came at a conference on Reconciliation organised by the government at which the Defence Secretary pledged to investigate specific cases of human rights violations and war crimes committed by individual soldiers. If these words are translated into action, Sri Lanka would be ahead of many other countries in commencing such investigations. The recommendations of the LLRC on which the government has laid much emphasis in responding to its international detractors, would indicate the path that the country needs to take towards a process of reconciliation that will create space for the realization of peace with justice for all Sri Lankans. New mechanisms will need to be created to ensure that there is a break with the past practices deemed necessary to win the war and ensure national security. Now it is human security and restorative justice that must be given more emphasis. It is also necessary that the government should accept that the process of reconciliation cannot be linked only to economic development projects but must extend to social and political life as well. The challenge before the government is to ensure follow up processes which have been hitherto notable largely by their absence. It needs to deliver on its promises of a political solution after war. By Jehan Perera