Giving “Accountable Amnesty” to abductors is doing injustice to victims’ families, says HRW

The concept of “accountable amnesty” falls short of international standards, says James Ross, HRW’s Legal and Policy Director

Published: 30th August 2016 04:06 PM  |   Last Updated: 30th August 2016 04:06 PM   |  A+A-

James Ross-EPS

Ross points out that the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, has recognized the concept as being inadequate. | Express Photo Service

COLOMBO: Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said that the recommendation of the Sri Lankan Commission to Investigate Complaints Regarding Missing Persons that perpetrators of abductions be given “accountable amnesty” is tantamount to rendering injustice to the families of the victims.

The concept of “accountable amnesty” is “outdated and falls short of international standards”, says James Ross, HRW’s Legal and Policy Director. He points out that the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, has recognized it as being inadequate. 

Going by what the Commission chairman, Justice Maxwell Paranagama, told the media in Colombo, perpetrators could walk out by paying fines or foregoing promotions. 

The commission reportedly says in its final report that those charged with violations of international human rights or humanitarian law should be investigated by local authorities, prosecuted by the attorney general, and tried before local judges in a special high court.

This is contrary to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution last October, which recognized the need for “Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defense lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators” in a Sri Lankan tribunal, Ross says.

The commission also says that those charged should be given an opportunity to explain their actions before the planned Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Truth Commission should “consider giving some of those who pleaded guilty an accountable amnesty. They will not be allowed to go scot free but will be given an appropriate punishment.”

This would apparently amount to paying fines and forfeiting promotions, Ross comments.

Were the Sri Lankan government to adopt this approach, a military commander or government official may be able to buy their way out of a criminal prosecution for summary killings, torture, and enforced disappearances by admitting their crimes to a non-judicial body and presumably not having to face evidence presented against them.

It’s true that South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided full amnesties to those who confessed their guilt. As Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has recognized, this approach is now regarded as outdated and falls short of international standards, Ross points out.

Sri Lanka is obligated to prosecute those responsible for serious crimes in violation of international law. A slap on the wrist for grave crimes is not justice – even if it comes with public admissions of guilt.

The thousands of victims of abuses and their families from all sides in Sri Lanka’s war should not be left out of the accountability process. All Sri Lankans need to see those responsible for atrocities appropriately punished.

“Accountable amnesty” evokes all the seriousness of “jumbo shrimp” – it’s not a real way forward.

Transitional justice in Sri Lanka needs to involve genuine trials, with the added expertise and protection offered by foreign judges, prosecutors, and investigators – and impose punishments that the fit the crime, Ross says.


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