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Sri Lanka one year on from war

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Reflecting in The Guardian on the one-year anniversary of the end of the Sri Lankan conflict, Desmond Tutu and Lakhdar Brahimi caution that genuine peace is more than simply the absence of fighting.

It is now a year since the final stages of Sri Lanka's brutal war. Peace, however imperfect, is always better than slaughter. But experience tells us that genuine peace is more than the absence of fighting.

On the first anniversary of the government's military victory over the Tamil Tigers, how far has Sri Lanka moved towards lasting peace? We should not downplay the achievements. After a conflict lasting 26 years, we share the relief of the Sri Lankan people at the end of the war.

The desperate living conditions of the 300,000 Tamils driven from their homes last year have improved. Most have been released from military-run camps. Those that remain have more freedom of movement. This is welcome, although less than was promised.

Tourism, such an important source of revenue, is recovering strongly. Its benefits should eventually be shared with those areas the conflict made off-limits to visitors.

Economic activity in the north is picking up. Its communities are beginning to see the first signs of hundreds of millions of dollars donated by the international community for reconstruction. This money is desperately needed. Many returning to homes in the north have found them wrecked by shelling and looting. The infrastructure is shattered. Farming and fishing, the mainstays of the local economy, have yet to properly restart. Jobs are few and money is scarce.

These challenges are always the legacy of heavy fighting. We have seen how, with determination, goodwill and support, even the most devastated lives and communities can be rebuilt.

Repairing the physical environment can be easier than rebuilding trust, however. Without trust, peace will remain fragile and a return to violence, which no one wants, will always be a threat.

Here the Elders want to express deep concern about the lack of progress. It is a failure that risks increasing the sense of Tamil grievance and resentment, deepening the suspicions of the Muslim community and squandering the benefits of the military victory, even for the Sinhalese majority.

If Sri Lanka is to build a more inclusive and democratic state for all its ethnic communities, there is an urgent need for far-sighted political leadership, able to reach out to all communities and serve all its citizens. This has, so far, been lacking.

Respect for minorities, human rights and the rule of law must be centre stage in Sri Lanka's future. The worsening conflict saw limitations imposed on civil liberties and democratic institutions. The recent relaxation of emergency laws and the promised presidential pardon for Tamil journalist JS Tissainayagam are welcome, but they are only a start. Real change must begin with repealing the state of emergency and re-establishing the constitutional council.

All displaced civilians should be helped to return home. Those suspected of being fighters must be treated humanely with full regard to international law.

We need to see the limited devolution already in the constitution put into action. Local communities must be given a bigger say in planning the development and reconstruction of the north and east of the island.

All these are vital steps towards a better and more stable future. But rebuilding confidence and trust also requires a determined effort for accountability for past crimes by all parties to the conflict.

There is a growing body of evidence that there were repeated and intentional violations of international humanitarian law by both the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) in the last months of the war.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa's decision earlier this month to appoint a commission on lessons learnt and reconciliation is a step in the right direction but not nearly enough. There is no indication, as yet, that the commission intends to hold anyone to account for any violations of domestic or international law.

Without a clear mandate for legal accountability, the commission has little chance of producing either truth or reconciliation. Nor will victims and witnesses feel safe in giving evidence.

The Elders believe an independent, international inquiry, with the ability to gather evidence within the country, is the best option. We hope this will be the recommendation of the expert panel due to be set up to advise the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon.

If so, Sri Lanka's friends should then press the government to accept such an inquiry. In our experience in South Africa and other countries, these kinds of inquiries work best alongside a full and open reconciliation process. This would allow the suffering – and mistakes — of all communities during decades of war to be acknowledged.

The government can help reconciliation by considering financial compensation, perhaps with international help, for the families of the many civilians who lost their lives or whose property has been destroyed. An official register of all those killed or missing would also help grieving and rebuild trust.

This will also put obligations on the Tamil community within and outside Sri Lanka. They also have to find the courage to admit the crimes of the LTTE committed in their name and accept that the campaign for Tamil separatism is over. These moves, together with real progress on protecting human rights, would help provide the platform for honest negotiation between the government and credible, independent representatives of Tamils and Muslims.

All countries and people who wish Sri Lanka well should use their influence to help move this process forward. Continued tensions, let alone a return to violence, are in no one's interests. We will gain, too, if Sri Lanka again takes its place as a valued member of the international community.

One year on from the end of the war, it time to see increased efforts to secure truth, justice and a lasting peace in Sri Lanka.

Desmond Tutu and Lakhdar Brahimi are members of the Elders, a group of eminent global leaders brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007.

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