Jean-Marc Ferre / U.N. PHOTO / AFP

Sri Lanka plans South Africa-style commission to confront war crimes

Truth and reconciliation panel would address alleged war crimes by Sri Lankan forces and Tamil rebels during civil war

Sri Lanka's new government said on Monday it was setting up a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission to look into atrocities during its long civil war, as it came under renewed pressure to prosecute perpetrators.

South Africa, which confronted its own apartheid-era crimes through such a body, would advise the island nation on how to use the commission to help victims and to track down missing people, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said.

He broadly outlined the plan, and other proposals to set up a criminal justice mechanism and compensate victims, at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council, hours after the world body announced it would release a long-delayed report on Wednesday calling for accountability for Sri Lankan war crimes.

Successive governments have promised to look into crimes committed by both sides during the 26-year conflict between government forces and separatist "Tamil Tiger" rebels.

According to an earlier U.N. report, around 40,000 ethnic minority Tamils were killed in a final offensive ordered by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2009.

But world bodies have been frustrated by a string of failed plans and a lack of criminal indictments.

Samaraweera told a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva that the government planned an independent and credible "Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-recurrence."

"The reputation of the vast majority of armed forces was tarnished because of the system and culture created by a few people in positions of responsibility," he added without elaboration.

Human rights groups say that Sri Lanka has failed to address continuing incidents of alleged torture by the police and military against minority Tamils, whose leaders call for an international investigation.

Within the new reconciliation commission, leaders from the island's main religions would form a "Compassionate Council" to help victims "discover the truth, understand what happened and help remedy any sense of injustice."

The United Nations originally meant to release its report on Sri Lanka in March, but agreed to hold off for six months to let the new government look into why suspects had not been prosecuted.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein praised the new government's efforts, but told the meeting it was time to press on with publishing the report by investigators led by former Finnish president and Nobel laureate Martti Ahtisaari.

"Its findings are of the most serious nature," Zeid said.

"This council owes it to Sri Lankans — and to its own credibility — to ensure an accountability process that produces results, decisively moves beyond the failures of the past and bring the deep institutional changes needed to guarantee non-recurrence," he said.

President Maithripala Sirisena, who defeated Rajapaksa's unprecedented bid for a third presidential term in January, has made tentative steps towards reconciliation at the head of a broad reform coalition.

With a majority now assured after last month's general election, the new Sri Lankan government is now better able to pass the judicial and administrative reforms that would make it possible to prosecute those responsible for war crimes.

Samaraweera, speaking in Geneva, also said a new constitution would be drafted as part of a broader political settlement that would properly address the grievances of the Tamil people.


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