A Question of Human Rights
As a responsible member of the UN, Sri Lanka should adopt a balanced approach in addressing allegations of war crimes during the civil war.
The Sri Lankan government has been facing international criticism regarding war crimes and human rights violations committed during the three decades of the civil war, particularly in the final phase which ended in May 2009. The in- ternational community and various international human rights organizations have also been demanding an international inquiry regarding possible war crimes and human rights violations in Sri Lanka.
In view of the mounting inter- national pressures the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, nominated a three-member panel of independent experts in June 2010 to investigate the alleged human rights abuses and to advise the UN Secretary General ‘regarding the modalities, applicable
international standards, and comparative experience relevant to an accountability process, having regard to the nature and scope of alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law during the final stages of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka.’ The Sri Lankan government has resisted any foreign interference and rejected the appointment of the UN expert panel. Members of the UN panel were not allowed to visit Sri Lanka for assessing the situation.
The UN expert panel after a tenmonth analysis of various information and reports by international human rights organizations submitted its report to the UN Secretary General on April 12, 2011. The report found ‘credible’ allegations against the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE ‘which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and the international human rights law was committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes against humanity.’
The UN experts found the following credible allegations against the LTTE: (i) using civilians as human buffer; (ii) killing civilians attempting to flee LTTE control; (iii) using military equipment in the proximity of civilians; (iv) forced recruitment of children; (v) forced labor and (vi) killing of civilians through suicide attacks.
Though the Sri Lankan government has claimed that during the final phase of the civil war it did not use any heavy military equipment and pursued ‘humanitarian rescue operations’ and a policy of ‘zero civilian casualties,’ the UN experts have mentioned five credible allegations against the Sri Lankan government and the Sri Lankan Army.
First, the Sri Lankan Army used heavy weapons for large scale and widespread shelling resulting in a large number of civilian deaths. The government also used heavy weapons in the three No Fire Zones (NFZ) causing civilian casualties and deaths.
Second, during the final phase of the civil war, the government ‘systematically’ shelled hospitals, especially on the frontlines, with mortar and artillery. It also blocked medical supplies for hospitals in war zones resulting in the deaths of many people because of lack of proper medical care.
Third, the government ‘systematically’ denied humanitarian assistance and aid – food and medical supplies – in the war zones. The experts found evidence of heavy shelling by the Sri Lankan Army on UN buildings, food distribution lines, and on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) ships bringing in humanitarian assistance.
Fourth, survivors living in IDP camps suffered from human rights violations. The Sri Lankan government referred to the IDP camps as ‘welfare villages.’ However, the conditions in the camps were substandard – basic social and economic needs were denied – and the people living in the camps were detained whereas international organizations and ICRC were not allowed to interact with the survivors in these IDP camps. Moreover, the screening process for suspected LTTE cadres was not transparent. According to the report, the suspects were either executed or taken to unknown places. The UN experts also found credible reports of sexual violence.
Fifth, the UN experts also found evidence of human rights violations outside the conflict zone – especially intimidating the media and other critics through threats and other actions.
UN experts have recommended that in order to initiate an effective domestic accountability process, the Sri Lankan government should ‘commence genuine investigations’ into the allegations of humanitarian and human rights violations ‘by both sides’ involved in the armed civil war. The report recommends that the UN Secretary General should set up an ‘independent international mechanism’ to monitor the Sri Lankan government’s actions regarding the accountability process and also to conduct independent investigations into the alleged human rights violations. The experts have also recommended that the UN Secretary General should review ‘actions by the United Nations system during the war in Sri Lanka and the aftermath.’
The Sri Lankan government has rejected the UN Report as being ‘fundamentally flawed and potently biased.’ The government spokesman Media Minister, Keheliya Rambukwella commenting on the report said on April 22, ‘The majority of the statements which have been made within the commission report, are remarkably the same as the statement which were made by the LTTE rump and the Tamil Diaspora in the final stages of the war.’ The government organized demonstrations in Sinhala majority areas to protest against the report.
On the other hand, the Tamil Na-
tional Alliance (TNA), the political party representing the Tamils of the north and east in the Sri Lankan parliament, has endorsed the UN panel report. The TNA in its statement said that the report confirms ‘the truth of what happened to unarmed Tamil civilians in the course of the recently concluded war and is an irrefutable confirmation of the accounts of the events as reported by us to Parliament as and when they occurred.’ The Sri Lankan government, as part of its national reconciliation policy to bridge the divide between the Tamil and Sinhalese community has started a dialogue process with TNA. The difference of opinion regarding the UN report reflects polarization between the two and will result in slowing the process of national reconciliation. The Sri Lankan government needs to act rationally.
Sri Lanka is a responsible member of the UN and various international organizations, therefore, the Sri Lankan government should adopt a balanced approach while analyzing the UN panel report and the allegations mentioned therein. Merely rejecting the report and regarding it as biased is not the correct approach. The Sri Lankan government should set up an independent mechanism to examine the circumstances during the last phase of the civil war and if instances of human rights violations are found, the possibility of which may not be ruled out during a civil war, they should be accepted by the Sri Lankan government and the damage done may be dealt with in a manner to strengthen the process of national reconciliation. As a responsible international actor, the whole process should be made transparent so that the concerns of the international community are also amicably addressed. The writer has served as Director, South Asia, Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.
Sri Lanka needs to be at peace with its past.