Probe War Crimes in Sri Lanka

Boston Globe editorial, May 24, 2010

This is a formula for scorched-earth repression, banning the international press, denying all charges of misconduct, and pretending the killers can conduct a disinterested investigation of their killings.

AT THIS time last May, the Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared total victory over the secessionist Tamil Tigers. Since then, the outside world has received credible accounts of war crimes perpetrated on a large scale by Sri Lankan security forces as well as by the Tigers. Human rights groups are now calling on the United Nations to authorize an international investigation of humanitarian law violations in Sri Lanka. President Obama, who has drawn criticism for soft-pedaling human rights concerns in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere, should insist that Sri Lanka’s government be held accountable for shelling civilians and hospitals and murdering fighters who surrendered on the battlefield.

The case for an international inquiry is not based solely on an abstract ideal of justice. If there is impunity for the horrors inflicted on civilians in Sri Lanka, other states confronting civil wars or secessionist rebellions will assume there is no price to pay for copying the Sri Lankan blueprint. This is a formula for scorched-earth repression, banning the international press, denying all charges of misconduct, and pretending the killers can conduct a disinterested investigation of their killings.

Sri Lanka needs a peaceful way to move beyond its ethnic tensions. While the country’s Tamil minority has legitimate grievances, the tactics of the Tamil Tigers were often brutal. The Sri Lankan government showed a willingness to take draconian steps to defeat the separatists. Beyond serving the cause of justice, an international war crimes inquiry may also promote a reconciliation between the Rajapaksa government and the minority Tamils of that island nation

Is the U.N. Complicit in Sri Lankan War Crimes?

by Colum Lynch, Foreign Policy, May 24, 2010

“U.N. agencies allowed themselves to be bullied by the government and accepted a reduced role in protecting civilians, most notably with their quick acceptance of the government’s September 2008 order to remove all staff from the Vanni,” the ICG report stated. “The Human Rights Council chose not to defend humanitarian law, but instead passed a resolution praising the conduct of the government. All of this has eroded further the standing of the U.N. in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.”

Louise Arbour, the head of the International Crisis Group, called for an internal review of the U.N.’s conduct during Sri Lanka’s bloody 2009 civil war, telling Turtle Bay that the organization’s abandonment of national staff in a conflict zone and its failure to speak up more forcefully about abuses made it “close to complicit” in government atrocities.

Arbour said the United Nations compromised its principles for a lofty goal: to preserve the ability of aid workers to provide humanitarian assistance to those in desperate need of it. But she faulted the U.N.’s acceptance of “absolutely unacceptable” visa limitations on international staff and the U.N.’s decision to withdraw foreign staff from the northern Sri Lanka province of Vanni in September 2008, on the eve of government forces’ final offensive against the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, leaving behind “very exposed” local Sri Lankan employees.

Ban in Sri Lanka 2009Her organization also cited one case from June 2009 in which the United Nations “was slow to react” to the abduction and torture of two U.N. national staff members who were detained on suspicion of collaborating with the Tamil Tigers, and “made no serious protest at their mistreatment.”

“The U.N. should look at how it behaved in the whole episode,” said Arbour, a former U.N. war crimes prosecutor and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. “I think it’s a very sobering moment where the United Nations should reexamine the price it is willing to pay to maintain humanitarian access.”

In a press conference Monday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon responded angrily to suggestions that the U.N. shared responsibility for the violence. “I totally reject those allegations.” He said he would move forward with the establishment of a panel of advisors to counsel him on how to hold perpetrators accountable for crimes during the decisive final months of the decades-long war.

Arbour’s remarks follow the release last week of a report by her organization alleging that the Sri Lankan military may have killed more than 30,000 civilians during its 2009 military conquest of the country’s Tamil rebels. The report also alleges that the Tamil Tigers, one of the world’s most brutal insurgent movements, also committed massive war crimes, forcing hundreds of thousands of civilians to serve as human shields, and murdering those who sought to flee to safety.

Arbour called for an independent investigation into war crimes by both government forces and the Tamil Tigers, warning that lingering bitterness fueled by the conflict will serve as an inspiration to future insurgents. She also faulted the U.N. Security Council for failing to use its powers to constrain Sri Lanka, and the Human Rights Council for issuing a statement praising the government at the end of the conflict for defeating one of the world’s most ruthless insurgencies.

“U.N. agencies allowed themselves to be bullied by the government and accepted a reduced role in protecting civilians, most notably with their quick acceptance of the government’s September 2008 order to remove all staff from the Vanni,” the ICG report stated. “The Human Rights Council chose not to defend humanitarian law, but instead passed a resolution praising the conduct of the government. All of this has eroded further the standing of the U.N. in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.”

Arbour’s views hold particular weight at the United Nations, where she served in Ban’s cabinet and worked alongside many of the officials she is now criticizing. Her remarks echoed her contribution to a 1990s debate on the U.N.’s role in war crimes in Bosnia and Rwanda.

The U.N. is “not a gigantic evil machine but I think there were probably some who made judgment calls that were overly cautious or prudent,” Arbour said. “My own suspicion, knowing some of the players in the environment, is it’s always for a good reason. It’s always not to aggravate the government or make sure they can stay in the game as long as possible. That’s exactly why it’s so important to look at the facts and start asking are we getting to a point where we are almost complicit with the government in our desire to maintain the delivery of services.”

For Arbour, the Sri Lankan war constitutes a defining moment for the United Nations and for Secretary-General Ban, who has faced criticism from rights groups for failing to push earlier for an outside investigation into possible war crimes during the conflict. Arbour said while she welcomed Ban’s plan’s to set to a panel of experts to explore how perpetrators might be held accountable, she wished he had done so immediately after the conflict.

She also criticized Ban for meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka and failing to press for an independent investigation. Ban traveled to Sri Lanka after the conflict ended and signed an agreement with the Sri Lankan leader that placed responsibility for ensuring accountability for war crimes with the Sri Lankan government. The deal was struck just as the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, was pressing the Human Rights Council to establish an independent inquiry into war crimes in Sri Lanka.

“The fact that the secretary-general went and stood with the president at the very end of the war when some of us had been for months screaming about what was happening in Sri Lanka — I don’t want to say it was disappointing,” Arbour said. “Well, let’s put it this way: I would have preferred an immediate call for accountability. I wish that what we’re talking about now was a conversation that had taken place this time last year, immediately after the conflict.”

U.N. officials defended Ban’s response to the crisis, saying he publicly urged, and worked tirelessly to persuade, Rajapaska and the insurgents to observe a pause in fighting to allow the release of hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped between the warring camps. They say that the U.N. is frequently required to rely on local staff to deliver assistance as a last resort, noting that they have done so in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and other conflict zones.

“The U.N. actually supplied the people with humanitarian assistance, at great risk to its staff,” said Nicholas Haysom, Ban’s political advisor. “There are times when, on grounds of safety, you have to make tough calls about whether and when to remove international staff, or even national staff, and yet how to continue to deliver humanitarian aid, and we’ve had to do this in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Haysom said that Ban was among the “most vocal” leaders in the international community raising the alarm about events unfolding in Sri Lanka. “He was one of the first to do so.”

U.N. diplomats and observers said that Ban was raising concerns about the violence, both publicly and privately, but admitted that his heavy reliance on quiet diplomacy had little impact on Sri Lanka’s behavior.

“He put a spotlight on what was happening in Sri Lanka,” said John Sawers, who was then Britain’s U.N. ambassador. “So it’s not perfect in Sri Lanka; far too many civilians got killed and there is still an outstanding problem with the civilians in the [Internally Displaced Persons] camps. But I believe Ban’s engagement made the situation less bad than it would otherwise have been.”

Hasyom said the secretary-general has little power to enforce his views on a sovereign government, particularly when he doesn’t have the full backing of the Security Council. “If the council is not backing you, you only have so much independent leverage or power.”

Arbour said that the failure to confront the excesses of the Sri Lankan conflict now may lead to further abuses later. The so-called Sri Lanka option — brutal military counterinsurgency combined with a total disregard for the laws of wars or international condemnation — has been gaining currency in countries faced with threats from insurgencies or militants. Her agency cited reports that the Sri Lanka option has seeped into the political debates in countries dealing with militants or insurgents, including Burma, Colombia, India, Israel, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Thailand.

“I understand the rationale,” Arbour said, referring to the U.N. decision to maintain its humanitarian operations in the face of compromises. “It’s the only way we’re going to get humanitarian deliveries,” said Arbour, noting that Sri Lanka should prompt a full reevaluation of U.N. humanitarian policies. “But there must come a point where you really have to ask: Are you now paying a price that is so high that you become almost complicit in terrible actions by governments?”

UN must Investigate Human Rights Violations

Amnesty launches fresh call a year on from end of conflict

by Amnesty International UK, May 17, 2010

On this first anniversary of the end of the conflict, Amnesty International is focusing worldwide attention on the continuing impunity in Sri Lanka and demanding justice for victims and the families of those killed, with members around the world holding events today and in the coming weeks.

Amnesty International today called on the United Nations to set up an immediate and independent investigation into the massive human rights violations committed by both government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam forces, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, during the country’s recent civil war.

The call came a day before the first anniversary of the end of the conflict (18 May).

The failure to act so far has left victims of human rights violations with no access to justice, truth or reparations. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans displaced at the end of decades-long conflict languish in camps or struggle to rebuild their shattered communities.

Madhu Malhotra, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Asia-Pacific, said:

“The UN never revealed what it knew about the final days of the conflict, acknowledged the scale of the abuse that took place, or pushed for accountability.

“At the end of the war, atrocities against civilians and enemy combatants appeared to be fueled by a sense that there would be no real international consequences for violating the law.”

Instead of investigating and prosecuting those suspected of violations during the war and providing reparations to victims, in the past 12 months the Sri Lankan government has jailed critics and clamped down on dissent.

“Many thousands of civilians died. However, attempts by the government to cover up the full extent of the violations by prohibiting independent monitoring means that the numbers of deaths may even be in the tens of thousands,” said Madhu Malhotra.

One year on, the situation for civilian communities caught up in the conflict shows no sign of improving:

  • 80,000 people remain in camps with little access to water, decent sanitation and medical supplies;
  • 300,000 displaced civilians who have tried to resettle remain vulnerable and struggle to survive in communities where homes and infrastructure were destroyed;
  • Thousands of people detained for suspected links to the Tamil Tigers remain in detention without access to the courts;
  • The government continues to extend the state of emergency, restricting many basic human rights and freedom of speech;
  • And no meaningful action has been taken to investigate reports of war crimes.

On this first anniversary of the end of the conflict, Amnesty International is focusing worldwide attention on the continuing impunity in Sri Lanka and demanding justice for victims and the families of those killed, with members around the world holding events today and in the coming weeks.

New Evidence of Wartime Abuses

Government Inquiry Inadequate; UN Should Establish International Investigation

by Human Rights Watch, May 20, 2010

“Yet another feckless commission is a grossly inadequate response to the numerous credible allegations of war crimes,” said Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Damning new evidence of abuses shows why the UN should not let Sri Lanka sweep these abuses under the carpet.”

(New York) – New evidence of wartime abuses by Sri Lankan government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the armed conflict that ended one year ago demonstrates the need for an independent international investigation into violations of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today. Recently Human Rights Watch research gathered photographic evidence and accounts by witnesses of atrocities by both sides during the final months of fighting.

2009_SriLanka_Victim.jpg
A member of the LTTE apparently captured by the Sri Lankan Air Mobile Brigade. In subsequent photos (downloadable via links below), the man appears to be dead, raising concerns that he might have been executed in custody.

On May 23, 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the government would investigate allegations of laws-of-war violations. One year later, the government has still not undertaken any meaningful investigatory steps, Human Rights Watch said.

Last week, the government created a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission with a mandate to examine the failure of the 2002 ceasefire and the “sequence of events” thereafter. It is not empowered to investigate allegations of violations of the laws of war such as those documented by Human Rights Watch.

Related Materials:

Q & A on Accountability for Violations of International Humanitarian Law in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Satellite Images, Witnesses Show Shelling Continues

Sri Lanka: Repeated Shelling of Hospitals Evidence of War Crimes

Other Material: Five photos taken on the front lines in early 2009

“Yet another feckless commission is a grossly inadequate response to the numerous credible allegations of war crimes,” said Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Damning new evidence of abuses shows why the UN should not let Sri Lanka sweep these abuses under the carpet.”

Human Rights Watch called on Secretary-General Ban to promptly establish an international investigation to examine allegations of wartime abuse by both sides to the conflict.

New Evidence of Wartime Violations

Human Rights Watch has examined more than 200 photos taken on the front lines in early 2009 by a soldier from the Sri Lankan Air Mobile Brigade. Among these are a series of five photosshowing a man who appears to have been captured by the Sri Lankan army. An independent source identified the man by name and told Human Rights Watch that he was a long-term member of the LTTE’s political wing from Jaffna.

The first two photos show the man alive, with blood on his face and torso, tied to a palm tree. He is surrounded by several men wearing military fatigues, one brandishing a knife close to his face. In the next three photos, the man is lying – apparently dead – against a rock. His head is being held up, he is partly covered in the flag of Tamil Eelam, and there is more blood on his face and upper body.

A forensic expert who reviewed the photos told Human Rights Watch that the latter three photos show material on the man’s neck consistent in color with brain matter, “which would indicate an injury to the back of his head, as nothing is visible which would cause this on his face. This would indicate severe trauma to the back of the head consistent with something like a gunshot wound or massive blows to the back of the head with something such as a machete or ax.”

While Human Rights Watch cannot conclusively determine that the man was summarily executed in custody, the available evidence indicates that a full investigation is warranted.

Several of the photos also show what appear to be dead women in LTTE uniforms with their shirts pulled up and their pants pulled down, raising concerns that they might have been sexually abused or their corpses mutilated. Again, such evidence is not conclusive but shows the need for an investigation.

The new accounts by witnesses described indiscriminate shelling of large gatherings of civilians during the last weeks of fighting, apparently by government forces. In addition to an incident on April 8, 2009, previously reported, witnesses told Human Rights Watch about three other incidents in late April and early May 2009 of government forces shelling civilians, mainly women and children, who were standing in food distribution lines. The witnesses also described LTTE recruitment of children and LTTE attacks on civilians attempting to escape the war zone.

Government’s Failure to Investigate Abuses

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission created on May 17, 2010 is the latest in a long line of ad hoc bodies in Sri Lanka that seem designed to deflect international criticism rather than to uncover the facts. The mandated focus of the commission ­- on the failure of the 2002 ceasefire – is largely unrelated to the massive abuses by both government forces and the LTTE in the last months of hostilities. Nor does the commission appear to have been designed to uncover new information: the commission’s terms of reference do not provide for adequate victim and witness protection.

The government-appointed chairman of the commission, Chitta Ranjan de Silva, is a former attorney general who came under serious criticism for his office’s alleged interference in the work of the 2006 Presidential Commission of Inquiry. The attorney general’s role was one of the main reasons why a group of 10 international experts, the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), withdrew from monitoring the commission’s work. The IIGEP stated that it had “not been able to conclude…that the proceedings of the Commission have been transparent or have satisfied basic international norms and standards.”

“De Silva was the architect and enforcer of the attorney general’s conflict of interest role with respect to the 2006 commission,” said Arthur Dewey, former US assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and member of the IIGEP. “Nothing good for human rights or reconciliation is likely to come from anything in which De Silva is involved.”

The government has also yet to publish the findings from a committee established in November 2009 to examine allegations of laws-of-war violations set out in a report produced last year by the US State Department, despite an April 2010 deadline.

Sri Lanka has a long history of establishing ad hoc commissions to deflect international criticism over its poor human rights record and widespread impunity, Human Rights Watch said. Since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has established at least nine such commissions, none of which have produced any significant results.

On March 5, Secretary-General Ban told President Rajapaksa that he had decided to appoint a UN panel of experts to advise him on next steps for accountability in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government responded by attacking Ban for interfering in domestic affairs, calling the panel “unwarranted” and “uncalled for.” Two months later, Ban has yet to appoint any members to his panel.

“Ban’s inaction is sending a signal to abusers that simply announcing meaningless commissions and making loud noises can block all efforts for real justice,” Pearson said. “The only way to ensure accountability in Sri Lanka is to establish an independent international investigation.”

Government Proposal Won’t Address War Crimes May 7, 2010