At the end of August, the United States announced that it would support Sri Lanka’s plan for investigating alleged war crimes that occurred during the final years of the country’s long-running civil war, which ended in 2009. This announcement signaled a shift in position for the State Department, which had long insisted on an international investigation. But, in the coming weeks at the UN Human Rights Council’s next session, the US will offer a resolution supporting Colombo’s proposed process for investigating and prosecuting potential war crimes. The resolution will come on the heels of the impending release of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ report on its investigation into abuses committed during the final years of the conflict.
We recently had the chance to talk with Amb. Stephen Rapp, who until last month served as US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues. During our wide-ranging discussion, we asked him about the Sri Lanka announcement, which had been made earlier that day. Rapp was, in his own words, deeply involved in an effort to hold Sri Lankan authorities responsible for war crimes. While encouraged by the news of the coming investigation, he emphasized that it can’t simply be a device meant to “answer the mail from Geneva.” It must be an organic process that reflects the need of all Sri Lankan communities to hold specific individuals who committed atrocities responsible, and in the name of reconciliation, the process should recognize that it was individuals, not entire communities, who committed those atrocities. His comments, lightly edited for clarity, are below. (Bold emphasis ours.) Stay tuned for more from our interview in the coming weeks.
Amb. Rapp: Well, I have not seen this specific news. I was deeply engaged on the Sri Lanka question from the moment I arrived at the State Department in September of 2009. I had a mandate on my desk from the Senate Appropriations Committee to do a report on possible war crimes committed during the final phase of the conflict with the LTTE [commonly known as the Tamil Tigers] in 2008-2009. We issued our report in mid-October of 2009 and later submitted a couple of others at the request of the Senate concluding that there was essentially a failure of the Sri Lankan authorities to follow up and to do genuine investigations. I made two trips out there to push for domestic processes. During my second trip in January 2014, there was a demonstration against my visit with several hundred protesters surrounding the US Embassy in Colombo. They held gigantic printed posters showing a picture of me smiling on the top but with another on the bottom with my face painted to look like a devil, with statements in the middle like, “I am a threat to world peace.” I was up north in Jaffna at the time that they launched the demonstration and when I returned to Colombo all was calm.
On the Sri Lanka issue, I worked very closely on strategy with my colleagues in the US Government particularly our regional bureau for South and Central Asia under the leadership of Assistant Secretary [Robert] Blake, and now Assistant Secretary Nisha Biswal, and the bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. In 2012 and 2013, we brought the issue to the Human Rights Council in Geneva and achieved passage of two resolutions strongly urging the Sri Lankans to do the right thing and investigate alleged violations. Then finally in in March 2014, we were successful in getting an HRC resolution authorizing an investigation by the High Commissioner, the report on which should finally be issued in the next several weeks. I expect the High Commissioner himself will visit later in the month of August (or early September).
I do think this has been one situation where our decision to stand strong for human rights and for accountability has been successful. We recognize that honestly in a conflict like that against the LTTE it was necessary to use very strong force to defeat a group that was committing horrendous crimes against the civilian population. But on the other hand that action had to comply with the laws of war and needs to be looked at from the point of view compliance of those laws. We were particularly concerned about crimes in which people that were not engaged in combat were intentionally targeted including the killing of surrenderees — all of which we detailed in the report that my office filed.
We do think that our position there and our engagement with the government and the people — in the Sinhala community, Muslim community, and Tamil community — contributed to a process where the people of Sri Lanka decided they wanted to make a choice about leadership that would change course from that followed by the previous government, and begin in fact to do something about accountability themselves. And so we welcome their efforts to do that. I have not looked at the current proposal, but the most important thing, from our point of view, is that any proposal be something that is developed in consultation with all of the communities in Sri Lanka. It cannot be something that is brought out and put into effect in order to just answer the mail from Geneva. It must answer Sri Lankans’ own need to actually deliver on accountability — the establishment of the truth, the prosecution of the most responsible individuals, and a reconciliation of society based upon the fact that crimes were committed by individuals, not whole communities. Certain people were responsible and others were not, and the society should come together across the sectarian, ethnic, and linguistic divides.