Opinion

Sri Lanka: Confronting
the killing fields

A hard-hitting UN report has found compelling evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final phase of the war in Sri Lanka in spring 2009.

In the face of repeated government denials, the report’s authors reckon that up to 40,000 died in just a few terrible months in spring 2009 — kept out of the sight of television cameras, and out of the politicians’ minds. The report calls for an international investigation, which could have far-reaching consequences.

Members of the Non-Aligned Movement, as they meet in Bali this week, have a critical part to play in ensuring these terrible abuses never happen again and that survivors of the conflict can seek justice, thus laying the groundwork for reconciliation.

They should encourage the UN and the government of Sri Lanka to implement the panel’s recommendations on accountability, including the panel’s call for the Secretary General to establish an independent mechanism to investigate these allegations.

In the lead-up to second anniversary of the end of the conflict on May 19, governments have praised the report — and then seemed ready to bury it. A different ending can, however, still be achieved.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon commissioned the report, but he and governments alike have so far failed to act on its main recommendation, a commission of inquiry — despite the fact that Ban and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa jointly promised accountability.

The report, which talks of “a grave assault on the entire regime of international law”, provides a chance to achieve reconciliation through truth and accountability, providing the stability that post-conflict Sri Lanka badly needs. It corroborates the evidence that human rights groups have been putting forward for the past two years.

If its recommendations are acted on, it may be possible to ensure accountability for the crimes committed by both sides. Conversely, the failure to act would be a missed opportunity on a grand scale.

The authors document violations by the rebel Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan government forces alike. The UN Panel of Experts, who wrote the report, comprise a strong body of experience and expertise: Marzuki Darusman, former Indonesian attorney-general; Steven Ratner, professor at the University of Michigan and an expert on the laws of war; and Yasmin Sooka, who was a member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Crimes included the Tamil Tigers’ use of human shields and the shooting of civilians who tried to escape the deadly trap in which they were caught, and the targeted shelling by Sri Lankan forces of crowded hospitals and civilian encampments inside an area which the authorities macabrely called a “no-fire zone”.

Despite all this, governments have stood back. Robert Blake, US assistant secretary of state, argues for an internal Sri Lankan inquiry instead of the international investigation that the report calls for. Others have not even gone that far.

A credible domestic investigation would be welcome — but the word “credible” is the sticking point. The UN report concludes that the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission, which the government set up to look into the war and its aftermath, is “deeply flawed” — in short, a continuation of what a 2009 Amnesty International report described as twenty years of make-believe.

An international inquiry, by contrast, would help Tamils and Sinhalese alike accept the reality of the charges leveled against the Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan government forces, where there is currently too much denial.

In different contexts around the world, we have seen that acknowledging the truth of violations on both sides is a first step towards reconciliation.

The Sri Lankan government talked of “zero civilian casualties”, even while the bloodbath (to quote UN on-the-ground spokesman Gordon Weiss) was under way.

Some took the Sri Lankan declarations at face value, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. As a human rights advocate in New York at that time, I remember a Security Council ambassador explaining that he hoped Sri Lanka would “continue” its policy of minimizing civilian casualties — a policy which, he implied, had enjoyed success so far.

Ban Ki-moon, contradicting his own panel of independent experts, suggests he can only establish an investigation with the consent of the government concerned.

That would set a sad precedent in terms of diminishing the moral authority of the Secretary-General’s post. Ban, who faces re-election later this year, can still show leadership on the issue (just as he did by creating the Panel in the first place), not least by urging that the UN Security Council should act on the report’s recommendations.

Some conclude that the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians somehow don’t matter, as long as the Tamil Tigers — a group which was listed as a terrorist organization in many countries — were defeated.

The world’s generals and politicians alike must understand, however, that there can be no justification for war crimes and crimes against humanity. What the UN report describes as the “discourse of triumphalism” finally needs to be confronted.

The UN report is not published in isolation. A Channel 4 television documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, will be broadcast early in June in the UK.

The one-hour program looks set to include footage not previously broadcast, as well as a shocking video of summary execution and rape-murder which Channel 4 News already aired (the video was denounced by the Sri Lankan government as a fake, and later authenticated by UN experts).

The UN report gives governments — at the Security Council in New York, at the Human Rights Council in Geneva and at the gathering of the Non Aligned Movement in Indonesia on May 23-27 — a wake-up call to ensure a measure of accountability. That historic opportunity must be seized.

The writer is international advocacy director of Amnesty International, whose 2011 annual report was published on May 14, 2011.

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