The recent experience with UK Committee of Inquiry into the war with Iraq is clear evidence that such government defined processes are inherently prone to manipulation, by their mandate and the appropriateness of the appointees, if not by anything more devious.
And this is Britain where there is strong media oversight and a vocal civil society.
So hence the announcement by the Government of Sri Lanka that it will be appointing a commission to undertake a truth and reconciliation process should be taken with a very large pinch of salt.
First, there is a long history of such failed commissions. According to the hard hitting Amnesty report “Twenty Years of Make-Believe: Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry”, Sri Lanka is notorious for its deliberate use of failed commissions.
Human Rights Watch has also weighed in against the proposal: “Every time the international community raises the issue of accountability, Sri Lanka establishes a commission that takes a long time to achieve nothing” and according to Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “(Ban Ki-moon) should put an end to this game of smoke and mirrors and begin a process that would ensure justice for all the victims of Sri Lanka’s war.”
The Rajapaksa regime has clearly embarked on a well-coordinated PR offensive. It has made a number of moves in past days, promising that the journalist Tissainayagam will be pardoned and that the Emergency Regulations will be “softened”.
Of course, these are welcome – when they happen – but the facts are what matters most.
Emergency Regulation still means suspects can be detained without any real safeguards and Tissainayagam has no assurances about safety, about ability to work as a journalist and no passport. In some ways, he is even more at risk now than he was when he was imprisoned and the international community should make it absolutely clear to President Rajapaksa that it holds him accountable for Tissainayagam’s safety.
So, what to do about these and other clever ploys from savvy PR agencies in the employ of the Government? Clearly, they are designed to undercut the outrage that many feel. A full year since the end of the war, with so many things are still so dreadful for so many victims and survivors, outrage is what people should feel.
But some international pragmatists and even some Sri Lankans argue that things are getting better. Most of these are the same people who have NEVER wanted to pressurize the Government, even when the atrocities were at their most severe.
So, their stance isn’t so surprising. It’s always convenient to ignore human rights abuse… especially when you want a cheaper holiday or to make new investments or less tension in your immediate circle of friends or… The list of reasons for by-standing is a long one.
The conclusion is simple – until the promises are delivered in practice and until the names of the commissioners and their remit announced, all past and current evidence indicates these promises should be seen as just words.
Does it mean pro human rights and pro-democracy actors should boycott this Commission. Not necessarily.
Just because it is designed as a PR exercise doesn’t mean that people and organisations of good faith can’t use this very tiny opening in the battle against forgetting. As the Dalai Lama says “never give up hope”. (3)