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UN panel: what will Ban's deal sacrifice?

No sooner had Sri Lanka’s supposed change of heart on allowing the UN panel of experts on war crimes convened by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon been announced, the Colombo regime made clear the circumscribed space it will accord the panel and, more importantly, the dangerous reciprocity it is demanding.

After months of defiance in the face of growing international calls for investigations, and mounting evidence of war crimes, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government this weekend (conditionally) agreed to allow the UN expert panel to visit. The ever acquiescent Mr. Ban not only grasped the regime’s new offer, but reportedly commended President Rajapaska’s “flexibility on this issue.”

To what end?

The UN experts, Ban said, would “visit Sri Lanka and meet with” the Sri Lanka’s own ‘Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission’ (LLRC) – staffed by government loyalists and already dismissed as neither genuine nor credible by international human rights groups. (Sri Lanka, however, has a different idea - the External Affairs ministry says the UN experts are to present before the LLRC, something UN sources deny).

While Sri Lanka has been under growing international pressure, its adjunct logic for agreeing to Mr. Ban’s deal soon became clear. Media minister Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters: "We resisted the panel saying we can't allow a UN investigation unilaterally. But in this case, the president has invited them not to undertake any investigation but to share the evidence."

Who benefits?

There can be no doubt who stands to benefit from any such an arrangement. While the LLRC arguably has nothing useful to offer a proper investigation, Sri Lanka’s murderous regime is, for obvious reasons, keen to study the evidence, including witness details, in the UN’s possession. In short, in exchange for meeting the LLRC, the UN panel is being asked to hand over information gathered about atrocities to the very people who committed, sanctioned and ordered these.

International human rights groups have been quite specific why they reject the LLRC: “[it] fails to meet basic standards and is fatally flawed in structure and practice.” Elaborating, representatives of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group stated:

“In its … hearings to date, the [LLRC]’s members, many of them retired senior government employees, have made no attempt to question the government's version of events and have instead offered current officials a platform for continued misrepresentations of the facts.

“These failings are reinforced by the absence of any provisions for the protection of witnesses to alleged crimes - a particularly crippling factor given that government officials have labeled as ‘traitors’ Sri Lankans who have made claims or provided evidence of [war crimes] by government forces.

“Appearing before Sri Lanka's LLRC under current circumstances could put witnesses at risk and lend legitimacy to a process that is neither a credible investigation nor an adequate or genuine process to address the decades of violence.”

Meanwhile, apart from its long history of human rights abuses and war crimes, Sri Lanka has a concomitant record of destroying evidence (such as remains from discovered mass graves) and killing disappearing and intimidating both witnesses and those who have highlighted atrocities – reporters, parliamentarians, rights activists and others.

What price?

Sri Lanka’s supposed big gesture does not enable in any way the UN panel to investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but is, instead, an attempt by the regime to obtain the information it needs to disrupt and preempt independent war crimes investigations. Thus, whilst it remains unclear – and highly questionable - what exactly Mr. Ban hopes will gain from access to the LLRC’s material, the most pressing question is – what, and who, will be sacrificed to get it?