U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, submitted remarks for the congressional record regarding the importance of accountability in Sri Lanka.
“I rise to address the situation in Sri Lanka, a country that has endured a brutal civil war and is working to address the difficult issues of accountability and reconciliation.
“Following the historic elections in January and August, Sri Lanka has a remarkable opportunity to economically integrate with the west and build security ties. This relationship has great potential that we all hope can be realized. But before we move forward on greater economic and security cooperation, Sri Lanka must finally resolve long standing issues of accountability that have plagued the country since the end of the war and engage in a credible and legitimate effort to reconcile amongst all communities in the country: Sinhalese and Tamil, Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist.
“Efforts by the last government to deal with war crimes allegations were a sham, according to the UN, according to the U.S. government, according to the victims and according to the current government in Colombo. Justice has been mostly nonexistent for scores across the country. Many Tamils do not trust the central government to administer a genuine and credible domestic mechanism to provide real accountability for crimes committed during the war. Many Sinhala mothers want to know what happened to their sons who served in the military. Many combatants and civilians remain unaccounted for, necessitating a comprehensive effort to identify all missing persons.
“On October 1, the UN Human Rights Council passed Resolution 25/1 which is focused on accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. This resolution is not perfect, but if fully implemented, it provides the most promising path forward since the end of the war. The resolution leaves open the possibility for international judges and prosecutors in Sri Lanka’s judicial mechanism to promote accountability. The current government has made clear that the international role will be limited to providing technical assistance and advice. As the U.S. works with Sri Lanka to implement the resolution, I urge our diplomats to push for the most robust international role in the accountability process. I also urge the Sri Lankan government to continue to act in good faith to ensure that any accountability mechanism is seen as fair and just by all its citizens.
“The U.S. led an effort to pass a 2014 UN Human Rights Council resolution which mandated a report on war crimes allegations in Sri Lanka. Earlier this month, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released its report which documented “a horrific level of violations and abuses” committed between 2002 and 2011. Among the violations committed by Sri Lankan government forces, the separatist Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and pro-government para-militaries included in the 261 page report include enforced disappearances extrajudicial killings, torture, denial of humanitarian assistance, sexual violence, indiscriminate shelling, and the recruitment of child soldiers.
“The report also recommended a series of measures that Sri Lanka should take to address these issues. For example the report recommends that the Government of Sri Lanka integrate international judges and prosecutors with an independent Sri Lankan investigative and prosecuting body to try those accusing of war crimes, implement security sector reform, return land occupied by the military, strengthen witness protection programs, and establish a national reparations policy in consultation with victims and families.
“Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera spoke a few weeks ago at the 30th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. His own very welcome recognition of the depth of the institutional challenges and of past failures is more than enough reason to insist on outside involvement, particularly in investigations and witness protection.
“Foreign Minister Samaraweera appears genuinely committed to reconciliation. He recently announced the government’s support for a Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-recurrence to help victims understand what happened and help them attain justice. He emphasized the government’s commitment to an Office on Missing Persons based on the principle of the families’ right to know what happened to their loved ones. He announced the establishment of an Office for Reparations for victims. Most notably he acknowledged that any judicial mechanism for accountability will need to be designed through a wide process of consultations involving all stakeholders to include support from the international community.
“Sri Lanka, and its supporters in the international community, expect action, not more promises, on each of these fronts.
“The political will expressed by the government for a democratic future based on human rights and rule of law is something that should be acknowledged and welcomed by the U.S., international community and all Sri Lankans. We have an obligation to support and foster this vision. As a friend, we also have an obligation to identify shortcomings as they arise throughout the process.
“Moving forward, the U.S. can take several concrete measures to support Sri Lanka’s accountability process through the challenging days ahead.
“First, the U.S. should work to ensure that the commitments in the current UNHRC resolution are fully implemented. Following the passage of the resolution, the U.S. should push for the most robust international role in the accountability process, to include international judges and prosecutors.
“Second, the United States can support efforts to ensure witness protection inside of Sri Lanka. This could include the establishment of special security force for witness protection, developed in close coordination with leaders in the Tamil community.
“Third, the U.S. military should urge its counterparts in the Sri Lankan armed forces to play a constructive role in the accountability process. I understand that there are many in the Sri Lankan military who seek to clear the military’s name so that the institution can move forward. They should deliver on that commitment.
“Fourth, the U.S. should continue and expand programs that strengthen civil society voices in Sri Lanka. The country now has a parliament which is more disposed towards incorporating civil society into the policy making process. These advocates will be critical moving forward on this as well as broader reconciliation efforts.
“Finally, the U.S. should make clear that any accountability process must include addressing violations committed by all sides in the conflict: LTTE, the Sri Lankan military and pro-government para-military groups.
“The goal of accountability is not revenge. The goal is to conduct a process where all sides are provided a measure of justice that leads to durable reconciliation and a marked departure from armed conflict. The previous government’s policies were a dangerous cocktail that were slowly sliding Sri Lanka back into ethnic and religious strife. Today, Sri Lanka’s leaders have an important opportunity to move beyond this divisive past. They say they want it and they have a plan on paper. Now is the time to act. And I am prepared to support the efforts of President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickramasinghe, Opposition Leader Sampanthan, and all Sri Lankans towards that end.
“The High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the credibility of the UN Human Rights Council is on the line in Sri Lanka. I agree and would say that the same goes for the United States. Our country has an important responsibility to finish the work of diplomats in recent years and promote the strongest accountability mechanism in Sri Lanka. Our credibility on human rights issues around the world is at stake and will be watched closely by human rights defenders and violators alike.”