GENEVA (Reuters) - Sri Lanka signaled on Thursday it aims to establish a credible judicial process involving foreign judges and prosecutors to investigate alleged war crimes during its long conflict with Tamil rebels, in line with U.N. recommendations.
Activists and international experts said that the domestic mechanism must win the trust of victims and survivors and provide robust witness protection for those who testify, especially against the Sri Lankan military.
The United Nations Human Rights Council, composed of 47 member states, adopted by consensus a resolution led by the United States and Britain. Sri Lanka co-sponsored the text.
“This resolution seeks to support Sri Lanka’s path to a lasting peace built on a foundation of justice and accountability,” U.S. Ambassador Keith Harper told the forum.
The U.N. human rights office said it was an “historic opportunity for Sri Lanka to address the grave human rights violations and abuses that its people suffered, at the hands of both the LTTE (Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam) and the government, during the conflict and in its immediate aftermath.
“It is now time for action.”
Both sides “most likely” committed war crimes including mass killings of civilians during a 26-year war that ended in 2009, and these should be prosecuted by a special court with international judges, the United Nations said in a landmark report last month.
The report said that despite pledges by the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena to pursue perpetrators, the South Asian state’s criminal justice system was not up to the formidable task alone.
Sri Lankan Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha said that his government would cooperate in implementing the resolution.
“Sri Lanka is pleased to join as a co-sponsor of this resolution as a further manifestation of (our) commitment to implement the provisions ... in a manner that our objectives are shared by the people and all stakeholders in the country,” he said.
The text also calls for reforming Sri Lankan security organs and vetting the military to ensure that no personnel linked to serious crimes are retained or recruited into its ranks.
“This resolution could lead to a very strong process or a very, very weak process. It will all depend on how it is implemented,” said Fred Carver, head of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice lobby group.
International involvement must be “sufficiently independent to win over the trust of survivors - many of whom wanted an international mechanism”, he said.
The U.N. report cited a pattern of atrocities against civilians in the war, with years of denials and cover-ups, and said that tens of thousands may have been killed in the war’s final stages.
Sri Lanka’s Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, set up after Sirisena took office, said on Thursday it would issue “certificates of absence” to families who have reported relatives missing in the conflict to help them access entitlements granted by the state.
Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez in Colombo; Editing by Mark Heinrich