Photo by REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte via Malaysian Insider

Some observations are in order on the President’s appointment of an international panel of experts to advise the Commission on Disappearances.

The Commission comprising Maxwell Paranagama, Mesdames Ramanathan and Vidyaratne were appointed to look into disappearances. They have held public hearings throughout the north and east and received over 19,000 complaints. They are supposed to hand in a report by 12 August 2014 – at the same time, the period they are to look into has been extended back to July 1983. Now, with the appointment of The Advisory Council, the terms of reference of this commission has been expanded to look into allegations of war crimes and violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in the closing stages of the conflict. A number of questions arise:

  1. With all due respect to Paranagama et al, do the commissioners have the time and the competence to look into allegations of war crimes and/or any of the issues identified in the expanded terms of reference, which have been taken from the LLRC? Were they not appointed to look into disappearances and therefore chosen presumably on the basis of their competence in this particular field? Did the LLRC not make special reference and recommendation with regard to disappearances?
  2. Up to date, the commission has received over 19,000 complaints. Will the issue of disappearances now be relegated to secondary importance, obscured completely, even abandoned? What does this say to those who came forward before the commission, the trust they placed in it and the expectations it has given rise to?
  3. Is it going to be the case that the advisors will only look into the war crimes aspect of the expanded terms of reference and their findings be released by the commission? What exactly is the relationship between the Commission and the Council? Does the latter proffer advice on the request of the former? Can it initiate action? Is the former empowered to reject the advice of the latter?
  4. Whether it be disappearances or disappearances plus war crimes, is the life of the commission being extended and for how long?

Clearly the Rajapaksa regime has had second thoughts about not engaging with the international community, a key section of which it has routinely castigated as sympathisers of the LTTE and worse, bent on regime change and the undermining of Sri Lanka’s national sovereignty. It would be interesting for instance to see how far Minister Weerawansa will push his opposition to the Advisory Council – having established to his satisfaction that Cyril Ramaphosa visited Sri Lanka as a “tourist”, one wonders as to what euphemism will be trotted out by him to cloak his hypocrisy with regard to the Council. He will most surely, in the end, acquiesce, always begging the question of as to whether the theatrics of rejection were and always will be directed by his boss to demonstrate how despite cabinet ministers virulent objections, he has held fast to a commitment in respect of accountability!

The message has obviously got through that whilst shrill jingoism will be dished out to us here at home, engagement will take place, as it did, secretly, in respect of the Advisory Panel of Experts appointed by the UN Secretary General – disparagingly referred to as the Darusman Panel and Report.

Those in the international community more disposed towards the regime or more to the point, opposed to international investigations, may well have conveyed the message that engagement must take place and hence, the Advisory Council. One is tempted to ask as to whether the latter will come to the same fate as the Independent International Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) that was attached to the Commission of Inquiry (COI) – the IIGEP packed its bags and departed, saying that there was no political commitment to search for the truth.

Political commitment is the issue here. That a Council – albeit an advisory one – is to look into issues including those which the regime has long concluded are not issues at all, conveys the message that all those bold, brazen, assertions in 2008,2009 and since, are being revoked, though not publicly or explicitly. There is a case; there are cases, to be investigated. It is difficult though, to envisage a situation in which this regime will act upon advice, in the event such was the advice, that confirms the grounds for investigation, indictment and prosecution of GOSL officers and officials for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Likewise, will the regime move against the former LTTErs of standing in its fold?

On the other hand, there is information publicly available with regard to the positions adopted by members of this Advisory Council on the issues at stake here – “collateral damage” and chain of command responsibility in particular, as well as the role of some members in respect of other inquiries. The appointment of the Council though gives the appearance of the regime having succeeded in appointing an eminent Council whose findings, it probably hopes, will at the very least muddy the waters over the issue of war crimes and thereby take the sting out of what the UNHRC investigation may find.

It would seem too that the South African assistance requested by the regime, may peter out or at best take time to shift into higher gear, as it becomes apparent to the South Africans that they have been playing cards with a cheat, as it were, and that there are definite limits to this. The political objective as opposed to commitment on the part of the regime was amnesty and as has been pointed out to them, the world has moved on since the South African TRC. In any event, the South Africans recognize that considerable preparatory work has to be done on the ground in Sri Lanka and by Sri Lankan stakeholders, before any outsider can really help.

The Advisory Council of three to the Commission on Disappearances, in international political terms, takes on the role of the only show in town for the regime in response to its international critics. It could go the IIGEP way and the arguments over war crimes will continue; the issue of disappearances though, “disappeared” in the resulting doubt and din, sound and fury.