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.

Southasia - - Region - By Fah­mida Ashraf

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.

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