UN names war crimes panel on Sri Lanka

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.

Establishing accountability in Sri Lanka

Two significant reports were just issued on human rights in Sri Lanka.  The first, AI’s report entitled “Twenty Years of Make-Believe:  Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry,” was released today.  The report describes how for the past 20 years, the Sri Lankan government has used ad hoc commissions of inquiry to investigate human rights violations by the security forces.  The commissions were established, for the most part, to deflect international pressure on the government to combat the ongoing impunity afforded to the security forces for human rights abuses.  The formal justice system in Sri Lanka has failed to provide redress for victims of human rights violations; thus, the violators enjoy impunity for their crimes.  The report details how the commissions of inquiry have been equally ineffective in breaking the climate of impunity.  Amnesty International is calling on the Sri Lankan government to learn from past failures and take measures to establish a justice system that provides real accountability for past abuses.  AI also calls on the international community to help Sri Lanka in this effort.

The second report was issued yesterday by a well-respected Sri Lankan human rights organization, the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna).  The report, entitled “A Marred Victory and a Defeat Pregnant with Foreboding,” describes in vivd detail the last two months of the war between the Sri Lankan military and the opposition Tamil Tigers.  The report is equally critical of the Tigers and the government forces:  the Tigers shot civilians fleeing the war zone and forcibly conscripted children to fight the advancing Sri Lankan soldiers, while the Sri Lankan government repeatedly shelled the “no-fire zone” which was crowded with civilians.  The report’s authors remark that confirming certain critical details of the last stages of the war will await an independent investigation into the abuses committed by both sides.

If you read both reports, you’ll see why it’s vital that an independent, international investigation must be undertaken into the abuses committed by both sides during the final stages of the war.  On a longer-term basis, you’ll also see the challenges facing the Sri Lanka government if they really wish to break the cycle of abuse and impunity that has prevailed for decades in that country.  Amnesty International is ready to do our part in helping the Sri Lankan government meet those challenges; I’m sure the rest of the international community would be willing to do so as well.  Let’s hope the Sri Lankan government decides to take up this task.

The Canary in the Coalmine

As the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility prepares to release its long awaited report on former Office of Legal Counsel deputy John Yoo’s alleged abuse of his office, there has been a renewed interest amongst political commentators in prosecuting human rights abuses committed as part of the Bush administration’s war on terror.

Writing for The Daily Beast Scott Horton, a law professor and commentator who has consistently led calls for such prosecutions, noted:

“It is widely suspected that the memos were requested as after-the-fact legal cover for draconian policies that were already in place… If the Justice Department internal probe concludes this is the case, that could have clear consequences for the current debate surrounding the Bush administration’s accountability for torture.”

The release last week of previously classified Justice Department memos written by Yoo, including a memo offering guidance on the handling of War on Terror detainee Jose Padilla, has further blackened his reputation and bolstered calls for his prosecution.

In the Huffington Post Monday, the widely respected trial lawyer Martin Garbus contributed a passionate call pushing for prosecutions over truthfinding, noting that senior members of the Bush administration violated some clear specific crimes.

Garbus expressed concern that the political establishment – both left and right – might have vested reasons for not digging too deeply in the course of a commission of inquiry. He particularly questioned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s equivocations regarding the extent of her own knowledge of the Bush administration’s use of torture.

“I don’t have a religious faith in the majesty of the law. It is just the far best alternative… At the end of the day, I would rather have American jurors, bound by the Constitution and the law, make the decision rather than politicians or unelected blue ribbon commission members. I would rather have judges, bound by precedent and law, determine what is, and is not legal.”

So watch this space. Prosecutions remain very much in play and John Yoo is likely to be the first target. In Horton’s words:

“For the legacy of the Bush administration, John Yoo is the canary in the coalmine. He is the most public face attached to policies he facilitated but did not originate. Yoo’s problems today may well become their problems tomorrow.”

Major General Backs Torture Commission

Major General Antonio Taguba speaks with Salon.com about why he supports a commission to examine torture:

“You can’t sweep unlawful activities under the table and just forget about it. I feel strongly about this because we have future generations who will be the beneficiaries of these actions… We have a lot of unanswered questions on accountability, questions that need to be answered and hold responsible officials — civilians and military — accountable. These include contractors… We have an integrity issue to contend with if we are to prevent this matter from recurring.”

Read the entire interview on Salon.com here.

Momentum is building on accountability. Last week, Amnesty International members called their Senators in Congress to urge support of an independent commission, and Amnesty International joined Major General Taguba, former FBI Director William Sessions and 17 human rights organizations in a public statement urging President Obama to set up  a non-partisan commission on detention, treatment and transfer of detainees. Yesterday, Salon reported encouraging news that the “Senate will advance torture commission.”

We need to keep the pressure on to make sure a commission happens–and happens the right way. Let President Obama know that you support accountability. Take part in Amnesty International’s 100 Days Action now.

What's AI's Take on Obama's Exec Orders?

Weekend reading: Amnesty International’s detailed analysis of President Obama’s executive orders on Guantanamo, detentions and interrogations

Here’s a taste:

Accountability and remedy

The new administration and Congress should take the necessary measures to ensure accountability and remedy for human rights violations committed by or at the instigation of the USA, including by, among other things:

Setting up an independent commission of inquiry into all aspects of the USA’s detention and interrogation policies and practices since 11 September 2001.

Ensuring that all allegations of particular violations of individuals’ rights under international human rights or humanitarian law are thoroughly and effectively investigated.

Ensuring that all those responsible for crimes under international law are brought to justice, including through criminal prosecution with sentences that take account of the grave nature of the acts concerned.

Amnesty International’s full recommendations on accountability are set out in USA: Investigation, prosecution, remedy: Accountability for human rights violations in the ‘war on terror’.