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Call for foreign judges to hear war crimes in Sri Lanka

If only Sri Lankan judges were present, local authorities could still manipulate reports, says bishop

Call for foreign judges to hear war crimes in Sri Lanka

A man, in this file photo, holds a sign during a demonstration  at the UN's European headquarters in Geneva calling for a probe into alleged war crimes committed by Sri Lanka at the end of the country's brutal civil war against separatist Tamils in 2009. (Photo by AFP)

ucanews.com reporter, Colombo
Sri Lanka

January 12, 2017

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A government appointed committee has called for an international judge to be given a role in legal efforts to bring accountability following Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war.

The Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms submitted their report to Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera on Jan 3. In it they called for the appointment of at least one international judge to hear cases of wartime abuses.

The report noted that on ethnic and politically controversial issues, the perception exists that the Sri Lankan judiciary can be biased, adding that there is a "lack of faith in the impartiality of the judiciary."

Bishop Noel Emmanuel of Trincomalee, agreed with the report, saying, "The presence of foreign judges would be ideal."

"In Sri Lanka, witnesses have been threatened and as a result they were scared to come out and speak up as their security was not guaranteed," said Bishop Emmanuel, an ethnic Tamil whose diocese was hard hit in the civil war.

He believes that if only Sri Lankan judges were present, "local authorities could still manipulate and write reports according to their likes and dislikes."

"Moreover, the reports and records would be in Sinhala, which the witnesses would be asked to sign against, even though they may have no knowledge of the language," said Bishop Emmanuel.

However, some analysts have questioned whether foreign judges would be seen as impartial. Jehan Perera, Executive Director of the National Peace Council and a human rights activist, said foreign judges might be "seen as biased by the other sections of the population like the Sinhalese" and "even the military."

He believes the impartiality of Western judges has been eroded by "double standards," whereby Western military actions in Libya, Syria and Afghanistan "are not legally challenged in international criminal courts."

Perera advocates instead for the Constitutional Council and all political parties in parliament to work out a domestic judicial process that is impartial and "which is seen as impartial to all sections."

While the Consultation Task Force report calls for at least one foreign judge to be appointed to reassure victims, justice would be administered through domestic mechanisms.

Bishop Emmanuel stresses the importance of getting the end result right. If justice is meted out, "this will lead to better reconciliation," he said.

The U.N. Human Rights Office had documented killings, sexual violence, enforced disappearances, torture and attacks on civilians between 2002 and 2011 committed on both sides of Sri Lanka's civil war, which came to an official end in 2009 when the government overran Tamil guerrillas in the country's north.

In the final phase of the war, the Tamil rebels held a large section of the Tamil civilian population as human shields. The former Sri Lankan government that prosecuted the war to its end, denied allegations of mass civilian killings in smashing its way through this human shield or of other war crimes.

The 47-nation Human Rights Council in Geneva, the U.N. rights body, on Oct. 1 approved a resolution for foreign judges and prosecutors to help Sri Lanka try those accused of serious crimes during and after the country's decades-long civil war. 

According to the United Nations the war claimed the lives of at least 40,000 civilians in its final days alone.

 

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