Sri Lanka’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, announced on Thursday that the country would set up an investigative committee to look into allegations of war crimes committed in the final years of the country’s 26-year civil war. According to international observers, including the United Nations, both the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) separatists committed war crimes. Sirisena, since coming to power in a surprise election result in January 2015, has moved to reverse many of the policies favored by his autocrat-leaning predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The decision to establish an investigative commission should come as no surprise. As I noted last month on these pages, Sri Lanka successfully attained a postponement on the release of a scheduled United Nations Human Rights Council report. The report, which was scheduled for a March 2015 release, has now been pushed back to September 2015 as part of a “one time only” grant in the words of UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.
The United Nations will not be incorporated formally into the investigative commission that is being prepared by the Sirisena government. Instead, the Sri Lankan government has indicated that it will take the opinions of UN officials into account, demonstrating a greater sensitivity to international concerns than the previous Sri Lankan government. The Sri Lankan government must avoid setting up the sort of of toothless investigative commissions the Rajapaksa government used to placate international critics (to little success). Sirisena clarified his approach to the press: “We are ready to get advice and their opinions for the inquiry, but I don’t think we need any outsiders because we have all the sources for this.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
So far, based on the government’s reform agenda, it is apparent that Sirisena and his cabinet are taking the issue of post-war reconciliation seriously. Still, Sirisena doesn’t represent a complete sea-change from his predecessor. During his campaign for the presidency, he reassured more nationalist voters that he would work to shield any former Sri Lankan leader from prosecution at the hands of an international court, including Rajapaksa. Additionally, Sirisena himself could be found liable for complicity given that he was a member of Rajapaksa’s government before defecting to run against his former boss in the presidential elections.
Sirisena’s has turned to domestic channels to show that he will nonetheless attempt to hold members of the former government accountable. Earlier this week, a Sri Lankan court announced that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother, Gothapaya Rajapaksa, was barred from leaving Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa faces allegations of using a “private army” for political intimidation.