Tag: Sri Lanka

“Truth to Power”: Louise Arbour on Human Rights and International Justice

CBC – CP file photo

The Canadian International Council recently organized an interesting public event with Louise Arbour on her role in speaking “truth to power.” The talk is available on line at Open Canada.org. (starts around 22min mark, after the introductions) and is constructed as a dialogue with Stephen Toope, President of the University of British Columbia and notable international law scholar.

Madam Arbour is known for being outspoken on the ICC’s prosecutorial strategy, shortcomings in the human rights regime, and advocacy on the Responsibility to Protect and especially the case of Sri Lanka. Arbour’s authoritative voice on these issues stems from her professional credentials and experience: former Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and presently the President of International Crisis Group.

It’s worth a listen. But for those interested in just the human rights and international justice stuff here are my selective highlights on the issues mentioned above.
(Note: these are not exact quotes as i’m a sloppy transcriber).

Human Rights
There is a need for adequate institutions, specifically an international human rights court. As long as the protection of human rights is in the hands of the duty bearers – the states – not surprisingly we’re not going to get very far.

Peace vs. Justice
The timing (of the Milosevic trial) was dictated exclusively by prosecutorial considerations. Some were concerned that a peace deal would put him out of reach…What it did to the peace process was not part of my brief.

The indictment of Gaddafi was very precipitous…it’s not an unfair assumption that it might have contributed to closing some doors to a negotiated settlement….The same actors in the Security Council that referred the Libya case to the ICC have not moved on Syria…The tensions between peace and justice are very present and will remain so until and unless we segregate the justice agenda from the political one.

Joseph Kony…probably accurate that the fact that he was indicted, at the end of the day, made it impossible for him to participate in peace talks…Political negotiators cannot deliver on that. The ICC process is a parallel track. It is not negotiable in peace talks.

What we need to do is what we do in domestic systems – we make it very clear that politicians don’t run indictments.

ICC and Africa
It would have been imminently predictable that the docket of the ICC would be heavily African. Apart from the cases of Security Council referral, all the other cases have come from countries that have ratified the Rome Treaty….That is the fundamental premise…The ICC was not engaged when there was, in my opinion and with lots of evidence, massive slaughter of civilians on the beaches of Sri Lanka. Well, Sri Lanka has not ratified the Rome Treaty.

The ICC might have been better advised, rather than try to downplay (the African bias) to really embrace it and engage with African governments – open offices, be there, be very present. As opposed to staying in The Hague and be very defensive that it’s only engaged in African issues.

Cooperation of authorities in the DRC with the International Criminal Court has been problematic from the beginning. It’s very unfortunate that the ICC only has jurisdiction in the Congo since the Court was created in 2002 when in fact the most catastrophic loss of life in the Congo took place in the decade before, from 1993-2003. When I was High Commissioner (for Human Rights) I launched what we called the “mapping exercise” to try to document that decade where between 3-5 million people were killed in the east of the Congo and there’s no legal regime to deal with it. The ICC has no jurisdiction so the idea was to hand this over to the Congolese authorities to try to encourage them to launch some kind of mechanism.

Accountability there (DRC), even with the ICC in place, it’s not almost ten years since the ICC has been in place and what? There are five, six people charged?….The ICC has a long way to go before it can be reflective of its mission in that environment

War on Terror and Sri Lanka
One of the most tangible and perverse effects of the War on Terror is the treatment of the war in Sri Lanka. The last few months, in 2009, of the thirty year old war whereby the government of Sri Lanka finally eradicated the LTTE was achieved at an unconscionable cost to civilian lives, which generated virtually no adverse response because it was under the agenda of the War on Terror. The LTTE had been depicted, quite accurately I might add, as a terrorist organization which had preyed on its own population. There’s not much to be said very positively about its methodology. And a lot of casualties in the last few months of the war are attributable to the LTTE itself – it’s not just government forces. But the way this was achieved would not have been tolerable if it had not been under the umbrella of one of the few so-called success stories of the War on Terror.


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Impunity Gap: Sri Lanka


(see first post in this series: Mind the Impunity Gaps)

There is increasing pressure for justice in Sri Lanka for crimes committed in the long civil war between the Government and secessionist Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and that ended in May 2009. While the Sri Lankan government has publicly pledged to ensure justice, there are legitimate concerns its current approach will not be genuine and sufficiently punitive, and will place the burden of guilt for war crimes and crimes against humanity on the LTTE while institutionalizing impunity for crimes committed by Government forces.

“Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”
The airing of a documentary called “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” on UK’s Channel 4 sparked new interest and pressure. It has now been shown to wide acclaim at the UN in New York and Geneva and recently by human rights groups in Washington, DC. The footage is indeed shocking. It documents extrajudicial killings, torture, and sexual violence allegedly committed by Government forces against Tamil civilians. The documentary is available on YouTube.

The Sri Lankan government has reacted angrily to the footage and accompanying accusations; it also claims that portions of the film have been doctored or are misleading. A BBC Hardtalk interview with a Sri Lankan MP and adviser to the President is revealing with regard to the determination of the Government’s denial and rejection of international pressure to investigate its own crimes.

UN Probe Alleges Crimes Committed by “Both Sides”

A United Nations Panel of Experts released a report in April, 2011 stipulates there are credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both sides in the final stages of the war (Sept 2009-May 2009). Crimes committed by the LTTE throughout the civil war are well known, including killings, forced displacement, use of child soldiers, etc. But crimes committed by Government forces have been less exposed.

The Panel’s notable allegations are as follows:

The Government says it pursued a “humanitarian rescue operation” with a policy of “zero civilian casualties.” In stark contrast, the Panel found credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law was committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity….330,000 civilians were trapped into an ever decreasing area, fleeing the shelling but kept hostage by the LTTE….Most civilians in the final phases of the war were caused by Government shelling…..(p ii)

The Panel was also highly critical of the Government’s commitment to accountability thus far:

The Government has stated that it is seeking to balance reconciliation and accountability, with an emphasis on restorative justice. The assertion of a choice between restorative and retributive presents a false dichotomy….The Government’s two-pronged notion of accountability, as explained to the Panel, focusing on the responsibility of past Governments and of the LTTE, does not envisage a serious examination of the Government’s decisions and conduct in prosecuting the final stages of the war or the aftermath, nor of the violations of law that may have occurred as a result. The Panel has concluded that the Government’s notion of accountability is not in accordance with international standards. (p iv)

The Government’s “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” was described by the Panel as “deeply flawed.” (p v).

In response, the Sri Lankan Government vociferously rejects the prospect of international judicial intervention, argues the “report is based on patently biased material which is presented without verification,” and claims that reconciliation should come above all else. A commitment to reconciliation above prosecutions is a familiar refrain for governments wishing to disguise impunity for their own crimes (e.g. Indonesia, Rwanda, etc.)

The impartiality of investigations does not always translate into a balanced prosecutorial strategy. This will be a considerable challenge for international or national trials for Sri Lankan atrocities. International courts struggle to prosecute the winners of conflict, particularly because of a reluctance to create a moral equivalency of crimes on both sides, and if perpetrators are in positions of political power and prosecuting them could risk instability or a loss of cooperation. Impartial prosecutions in national trials are likely to be impossible in this case, owing in no small part to what the Panel calls the Sri Lankan government’s discourse of “triumphalism” over Tamils and “exclusionary policies” that prevent domestic victims’ groups from successfully exerting pressure on the government.

Prospects for Closing the Impunity Gap
Pressure from the UK and advocacy from human rights groups seems to be having no effect so far. Most of the pressure is on the UN Secretary-General because the Panel was commissioned by his office and with the purpose of advising him on further investigations and accountability. Victims and human rights groups are pressing him to take up the Panel’s clear recommendation to establish and official international commission of inquiry. Such a formal inquiry, as past experience has shown, would pressure the Sri Lankan government to genuinely investigate and hold war criminals accountable, and absent such a response would generate support for an international tribunal. If not an ad hoc or hybrid tribunal, a referral to the International Criminal Court would have to come from the Security Council as Sri Lanka is not a State Party to the Rome Statute. But China’s support for Sri Lanka and its autonomy in accountability makes this unlikely to happen. There is great risk that the Sri Lanka case will fall through the cracks.

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The “Neda” Effect in Sri Lanka


Yesterday Channel 4 in the UK aired the above video, allegedly recorded on a mobile phone and smuggled out of the country by human rights activists, apparently of Sinhalese soldiers massacring Tamil noncombatants earlier this year. The Sri Lankan government (naturally) argues it is a fabrication. Human Rights Watch’s James Ross says “there is no way to tell if the footage is genuine,” but argues that the release of the film underscores the need for an “objective” inquiry into atrocities – by both sides – during the conflict.

I agree with Human Rights Watch in general – that whatever the validity of the film, truth-letting is politically necessary in order to move the country beyond two and half decades of armed struggle.

But I’m not so satisfied with Ross’s claim that we can’t know if the film itself is valid, since ultimately footage like this will increasingly matter, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, as post-conflict justice is pursued through courts.

Anyway, are there really no standards of evidence emerging for user-generated video such as this? Channel 4 at the UK has described the measures it took to authenticate the film before airing it, including qualitative comparisons to similar footage from the Bosnian war. It’s interesting to think about what kind of authentication could hold up in a hypothetical war crimes court.

Would it not be useful to know more, for example, about how the UK acquired the video? How it made its way from the soldier who shot it to the human rights activist who passed it along to the journalist? One can imagine a number of legitimate scenarios; one can imagine others. Answers to these questions can be found, and have a bearing on the credibility of the film. Retracing that chain to the original cell phone could lead to additional facts of the case, a skill already in use by cyber forensic researchers in domestic contexts. And relevant evidentiary standards must be under development by US law enforcement agencies, cell phone video is increasingly being used to investigate criminals and agents of the state alike.

Not being a cyber forensics expert, I don’t claim to know what these standards are or offer suggestions as to how to view this particular video artifact. But such solutions should be devised, as claiming “one can never know for certain” will ultimately be self-defeating for the human rights community, feeding into the denials of abusive governments. The “Neda effect” – the use of cell-phone video to capture and make visible acts of brutality – has the potential to shift the balance of power between governments and citizens, but also the potential for abuse and misdirection. Human rights organizations should be taking the lead in figuring out how institutions of international justice can leverage such technology while mitigating its side-effects, rather than shrugging it off altogether.

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