THE BLOG
16/09/2015 07:02 BST | Updated 16/09/2016 06:12 BST

Critical Moment In Geneva - But Will the Tamils See Justice?

In the closing stages of Sri Lanka's 26 year civil war in 2009, government forces closed in on the beleaguered Tamil Tigers and encouraged Tamil civilians to seek refuge in "no fire zones". These no-fire zones were then systematically shelled by the army. Thousands of Tamil civilians died. Between 1956 and 2001, it is alleged that the Tamil population suffered over one hundred massacres. Other communities have also suffered as a result of the Tigers, as well as at the hands of the state.

I heard horrendous stories from Tamil constituents of the violence that took place in Sri Lanka. It was these haunting experiences that were relayed to David Cameron when he visited Jaffna in 2013. On the back of that visit, Cameron led calls at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for an international investigation. It had to be an international process because the Sri Lankan government did not appear to be willing or even trusted to have its own domestic investigation into these crimes.

In the spotlight again is this issue of whether the Sri Lankan Government can be trusted to conduct the justice mechanism into alleged the atrocities that will be dealt with by the UN's independent investigation's report, which is to be published today.

The report's contents will be shocking. We know that because a 2011 UN report found "...credible allegations ... indicate ... serious violations of international ... law ...committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity."

Sri Lanka's President Sirisena has already set his face against any international involvement insisting on a domestic tribunal. By contrast, many Tamil people want to see an international, independent justice mechanism of the kinds established in post-conflict Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

However, the international community increasingly trusts the new Sri Lankan Government. Their concerns have been assuaged by the warm words from President Sirisena since his surprise election in January. While Sirisena appears to genuinely seek reconciliation, this has not trickled down through the system. In truth, the last eight months has seen little progress on key issues affecting Tamil people. The north and east are still very heavily militarised, resettlement of civilians is slow and there are still significant barriers to direct inward economic investment. More worryingly, Freedom From Torture's August report detailed evidence that, since the 2009 ceasefire and even into 2015, the Sri Lankan military, police and intelligence services have practiced torture - including rape and extensive burning.

Many in the Tamil community reject a purely domestic tribunal for good reason. There are three main reasons why they do so. First, how can victims of horrendous human rights abuses have confidence in the impartiality of a tribunal convened by a government comprised of a number of people accused of those very abuses? Second, Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the Rome Statue - its domestic laws do not cover international laws that the 2011 UN report found credible evidence were breached (by both sides). Finally, many Tamil victims of and witnesses to human rights abuses fled the country and were asylum in countries such as the UK. Many would fear returning to Sri Lanka to participate in a tribunal where witness protection is provided by a government they believe includes war criminals. When human rights abuses are alleged to have continued even into 2015, what confidence can witnesses have in coming forward in this perceived climate of fear, especially when it is believed that previous witnesses who have come forward have suffered as a result?

Sadly, since only 23 of 47 members of the UNHRC voted positively for an independent investigation in 2014, there is only a limited prospect that a resolution imposing a fully independent judicial mechanism can be delivered. This is troubling but there is little any one country can do to force an independent justice mechanism.

If a judicial mechanism cannot be delivered, the UN Security Council meeting must be used as an opportunity to make the judicial process as accountable as possible. It must be used to set concrete and measurable targets for improving the lives of Tamil people in Sri Lanka.

You will hear two words used repeatedly in the coverage of the UNHRC's consideration of Sri Lanka in the coming fortnight: "accountability" and "reconciliation". The Tamil people want reconciliation. But there can be no true reconciliation without accountability for the atrocities committed the during and after the civil war. As Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils, I am calling on the British government once again to lead the world in seeking proper accountability for human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. If we fail to do this effectively, there is little prospect of genuine reconciliation in Sri Lanka any time soon.

James Berry is Member of Parliament for Kingston & Surbiton and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils