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Grimm: Sri Lankan Government Risks Squandering Hard-Won Opportunity

The end of a three-decade long civil war in Sri Lanka has given the country an incredible opportunity to address the war’s root cause — long-standing ethnic tension — and forge ahead with its plans for an open, democratic and prosperous future. The war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam was devastating to all Sri Lankans: Countless lives were lost, individuals were stripped of their livelihoods and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced.

Unfortunately, I worry this golden opportunity for lasting peace in Sri Lanka could be callously squandered because Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s promises to stabilize and rebuild his fragile democracy still have not materialized two and a half years after the war. Instead of pursuing genuine reconciliation, which is essential for the country’s long-term stability, the president continues to exacerbate tensions in his country, particularly those between Tamils and Sinhalese. A prime and alarming example of this is the attempts by Rajapaksa’s regime to whitewash horrible actions by the government in the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war, where 10,000 to 40,000 ethnic Tamils were slaughtered by government forces made up almost entirely of ethnic Sinhalese.

The Sri Lankan government’s dubious handling of the war’s final stages and the post-war reconciliation process have been chronicled in a report released by the United Nations Panel of Experts and a documentary by the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 called “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.” Both reports confirm horrific atrocities were committed by both sides — the LTTE and the government — and these violations of international human rights and humanitarian law could potentially amount to war crimes.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, established by the government to investigate these final months, was given no mandate to bring anyone to trial or hold anyone accountable for their actions. Although the government has actively pursued accountability outside of the LLRC for members of the LTTE, it fails to hold itself to the same standard.

In addition to its flaws in composition and mandate, the LLRC has moved at a suspiciously slow pace in conducting its investigation and putting together its report. The LLRC was granted two six-month extensions by President Rajapaksa prior to his receipt of the report on Nov. 20, and no timetable has been set for the report’s publication. This could very well be because an inadequate report would spur more calls for international intervention, and a viable report would not serve the interest of the president and his family because they have so much to lose should the truth be brought to light.

In February 2011, the Senate passed a resolution calling for an independent, international investigation into the human rights violations that occurred. I have taken up this cause in the House, introducing a companion resolution, H. Res. 177, urging the same solution.

Only a handful of countries, including China and Pakistan, are backing Sri Lanka’s calls for asylum from international intervention, which is deeply concerning considering each nation’s own record on human rights abuses. Finding allies in such countries only casts an even darker shadow on the government’s integrity.

As a Representative serving in the greatest democracy in the world, I feel Congress must not stand idly by as the Sri Lankan government continues to carry out policies that could stir up long-standing tensions and lead to another large-scale civil war.

Failure by the United States and international community to act sends the message that leading democratic bodies are unwilling to consistently protect and promote fundamental human rights and the core tenets of democracy.

Not only is an independent international investigation the right thing to do for the people of Sri Lanka, but it is the right policy for the U.S. as we continue to work to spread freedom and democracy throughout the globe.

Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) represents Staten Island, home to a substantial Sri Lankan immigrant community.

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