Lanka Solidarity welcomes the increased discussion and scrutiny prompted by the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s advisory panel report on matters relating to human rights violations during the final phase of war in Sri Lanka.
The report has not been released officially. However, five extensive leaks published in The Island newspaper make the following points: (emphases ours)
- The panel refutes the government's claims that civilians were not killed during the war, citing those who left the war zone who spoke of indiscriminate shelling by the government. It states that “The Government shelled on a large scale in three consecutive No Fire Zones, where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate, even after indicating that it would cease the use of heavy weapons.... Most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling.”
- “Two years after the end of the war, there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage.” “Due to the intensity of the shelling, many civilians were left where they died and were never registered, brought to a hospital or even buried.” The report also says that the government shelled hospitals, despite being aware of their locations; in the most recent leak, the report documents how the government was “disputing IDP figures as a basis to deny humanitarian assistance.”
- “The Panel’s determination of credible allegations against the LTTE associated with the final stages of the war reveal six core categories of potential serious violations: i) using civilians as a 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 labour; and (vi) killing of civilians through suicide attacks.” From February 2009 onwards, the LTTE started point-blank shooting of civilians who attempted to escape the conflict zone, significantly adding to the death toll in the final stages of the war.
- According to the panel, Sri Lanka’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is “deeply flawed” and “fails to satisfy key international standards of independence and impartiality, as it is compromised by its composition and deep-seated conflicts of Interests of some of its members.” Further, the LLRC is not set up to examine “the root causes of the decades-long ethnic conflict” and “has not conducted genuine truth-seeking about what happened in the final stages of the armed conflict, not sought to investigate systematically and impartially the allegations of serious violations on both sides of the war....”
- The panel notes that “accountability goes beyond the investigation and prosecution of serious crimes that have been committed; rather it is a broad process that addressed the political, legal and moral responsibility of individuals and institutions for past violations of human rights and dignity.” The government’s stated attempt to balance reconciliation and accountability does not examine its own decisions and conduct in the final stages of war. By focusing on the responsibility of past governments and the LTTE, the present government denies war victims their rights to truth and justice.
- “During the final stages of the war, the United Nations political organs and bodies failed to take actions that might have protected civilians.” In seeking to protect its relationships with the government, the U.N. refused to publicize its own tallies of massive civilian casualties.
- “Considering the response of the United Nations to the plight of civilians in the Vanni during the final stages of the war in Sri Lanka and the aftermath... the Secretary-General should conduct a comprehensive review of actions by the United Nations system during the war in Sri Lanka and the aftermath, regarding the implementation of its humanitarian and protection mandates.”
The advisory panel’s findings bring greater scrutiny and attention to these actions by the LTTE and government security forces. Given the allegations contained therein, Lanka Solidarity is dismayed by the process through which the report has been released and publicized: the United Nations has compounded its mistakes during the war by also botching this. Rather than releasing the report immediately, in full, and to the public, allowing for a simultaneous and collective debate, the United Nations gave a copy to the Sri Lankan government, making it possible for Sri Lankan officials to denounce it and launch a defensive strategy. The United Nations has still not released the full report one week later, despite five substantial leaks of information from the report appearing in The Island, a pro-government newspaper. This has caused speculation that the leak comes from the Sri Lankan government itself, raising questions about whether the leak will undermine the report and future inquiries. On April 20, the Sri Lankan government rejected the assumption that it leaked the report, and called for the U.N. not to make it public.
The panel’s report demonstrates that the war between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE caused civilians untold suffering and presented a serious violations of international law. Lanka Solidarity believes that these allegations necessitate an international investigation into the nature and scale of the alleged violations, and the failures of the United Nations system to respond to them. The informed allegations contained in the report clearly call for a more thorough investigation. It now falls to the UN to take action to address the panel’s recommendations. Given their long-term relationships with Sri Lanka, the U.S. and India in particular should take leadership on this matter and resist the attempts of other member states to obscure or obstruct an investigation.
The report’s allegations must be handled carefully and with some consideration of short-term implications, as the government pursues a domestic crackdown on its critics, including members of the media and political opposition. In light of this repressive atmosphere, some suggest the country isn’t ready for the prosecution of war crimes and question the focus of this inquiry on the final months of war. However, given the grave nature of the violations described in the report, they must be specifically addressed. An international investigation will signal a real commitment to accountability in Sri Lanka, which could in turn foster robust domestic processes to address the entire conflict. These processes would provide a measure of the accountability and justice that must be the foundation of political reconciliation and enduring peace.