Rights groups won't testify to Sri Lanka panel

AP News
Posted: Oct 14, 2010 7:37 AM
Rights groups won't testify to Sri Lanka panel

Three international rights groups have declined to testify before a government-appointed commission inquiring into Sri Lanka's civil war, saying it lacks independence and has no mandate to investigate alleged war crimes.

Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group and Amnesty International have jointly written to Sri Lanka's Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to decline invitations to testify, a statement said Thursday.

The groups contend the commission would not operate independently because its members were appointed by the government; moreover, the body had no real mandate to probe alleged war crimes reported in the last stages of the war.

The commission also lacks any mechanism to protect witnesses and falls short of minimum international standards of a commission of inquiry.

"There is little to be gained by appearing before such a fundamentally flawed commission," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "Accountability for war crimes in Sri Lanka demands an independent international investigation."

Sri Lankan forces crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam group last year, ending their quarter-century campaign for an independent state for Sri Lanka's ethnic minority Tamils.

But human rights groups say there were very high civilian casualties and accused both sides of violating basic human rights as the war ended. According to the United Nations, more than 7,000 civilians were killed in the last five months of the conflict alone.

Rights groups accuse Sri Lanka of deliberately shelling civilians and hospitals and depriving them of food and medicine. The rebels are accused of using civilians as human shields, killing those trying to escape the fighting and conscripting children as soldiers.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed the commission in May primarily to inquire why a Norway-brokered cease-fire between the government and the Tamil rebels signed in 2002 collapsed. Rights groups criticized the move as an act to deflect calls for an international inquiry.

In June, the U.N. appointed a three-member panel to look into alleged violations of international rights and humanitarian laws during the war's final stages. Sri Lanka protested the move as interference in its internal affairs.