Watchdogs Push Hard for War Crimes Probe in Sri Lanka

WASHINGTON, Sep 16, 2011 (IPS) – Despite months of frustrated efforts to secure a full and impartial investigation into possible laws-of-war  violations during the last phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war, which ended in 2009, leading human rights advocates in the U.S. launched a fresh  charge on the island nation’s government this week, vowing that, “If the Sri Lankan government won’t provide justice for victims, the international community will.” The push was sparked by a diplomatic spat at the 18th annual session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which opened in Geneva on Monday, when Navanethem Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, urged Sri Lankan authorities to conduct a full review of its security apparatus.

“The counter measures adopted by various countries to combat terrorism have frequently been designed with insufficient regard to human rights,” Pillay said in her opening remarks, stressing, “This has all too often led to an erosion of rights and fostered a culture of diffidence and discrimination, which in turn, perpetuates cycles of violence and retribution. Sri Lanka is one such case.”

Pillay’s comments added to the international call for post-conflict truth and justice in Sri Lanka, which has been growing since May 2009 when government forces finally crushed the armies of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a minority separatist group that had been fighting for the self-determination of Tamils in the Sinhala- Buddhist-governed country since 1983.

While much of the world, and indeed a majority of Sri Lankans themselves, hailed the end of the 30-year-long civil war as a great “victory against terrorism”, subsequent reports from aid workers, U.N. officials, war survivors and journalists about possible war crimes and immense human rights abuses by both the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) and the LTTE began to sketch a different, darker view of what the government had hitherto declared to be an almost bloodless humanitarian operation in the formerly rebel-controlled North East.

Claims of Double Standards
Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka’s minister for human rights, questioned the U.N. high commissioner’s impartiality and lamented a loss of confidence in the UNHRC’s operating mechanism.

“We believe that the high commissioner should abide by the same principles that govern the work of the Human Rights Council, such as universality, transparency, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity [and] promote and protect human rights in a fair and equitable manner while recognizing the importance of the elimination of double standards and politicization,” he said this week. But AIUSA spoke strongly against the claim of “double standards”.

“Such leaders like to hide behind this claim to deflect attention from the abuses they’re alleged to have committed, but the claim is hollow,” Singh told IPS.

“If we take the cases of [Sudanese president Omar] Al Bashir and [Libya’s former leader Muammar] Gaddafi as examples, the International Criminal Court’s involvement didn’t suddenly emerge as an invention of so-called Western governments to affect regime change.”

“The crimes of which Al Bashir and Gaddafi are accused are specific and well-defined and have long been widely accepted by the vast majority of the world’s states,” Singh added.

“The ICC’s purpose is to obtain justice on behalf of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of victims. Why should a handful of leaders – about whom very credible allegations of widespread and systematic abuses have been leveled — be considered more legitimate voices in speaking on behalf of the entire global south in these situations?” she asked.

“[We need to] ensure that the same set of rules apply evenly everywhere because there are international standards that every country is bound by,” Pearson told IPS. “So whether it is torture authorised by the U.S. government or alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, governments have a duty to investigate and prosecute such crimes. Where they fail to do so, the international community is obliged to step in.”
In May 2010, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon commissioned a three- member Panel of Experts to examine a possible accountability process in Sri Lanka after President Mahinda Rajapaksa failed to investigate the allegations himself.

After reviewing extensive documentation by U.N. organisations, satellite images, photographs, video materials and testimony from survivors, the panel’s report, published on Apr. 25, concluded that both armies conducted military operations “with flagrant disregard for the protection, rights, welfare and lives of civilians and failed to respect the norms of international law.”

The report also stressed that tens of thousands of civilians likely perished between January and May 2009, a large majority at the hands of government shelling, particularly in the declared “No Fire Zones”.

“When a U.N. Panel of Experts report concludes up to 40,000 civilians died amid war crimes, the Human Rights Council should feel compelled to act,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said Tuesday.

“The council should order a full international investigation – anything less would be a shameful abdication of responsibility,” he added.

Last year the Sri Lankan government rejected the U.N. panel’s findings, calling the report, “illegal, biased, baseless and unilateral”.

Responding to Pillay’s comments this week, Tamara Kunanayakam, ambassador and permanent representative of Sri Lanka, dismissed the allegations as “wholly misplaced” adding, “the community of nations was well aware that Sri Lanka was combating one of the most ruthless terrorist organisations in the world.”

Requests for comment from the Sri Lankan embassy in Washington were not answered before deadline.

But both Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued statements this week pushing strongly for the UNHRC to consider the report and implement its recommendations.

“That means the majority of members of the council will need to support this effort, so civil society needs to lobby strategic countries to stand up for accountability and justice, just as they have done recently in Libya, Syria and other places,” Elaine Pearson, deputy director of the Asia division at HRW, told IPS.

“Given that the international community did not act to prevent [countless] deaths in [Sri Lanka during the war], it’s the least that they can do now to order an international inquiry,” she said.

“The failure to hold abusers accountable has an effect on lasting peace – it just reinforces a culture of impunity that encourages future abuses. We’ve seen this happen in many places – Afghanistan and Congo are some examples,” Pearson told IPS. “So the ‘fragile peace’ in Sri Lanka may be short-lived, if the legitimate grievances of Tamils are not addressed and there is no accountability for the litany of alleged war crimes committed during the final stages of the war.”

Sharon Singh, the media relations director for AIUSA, told IPS, “Sri Lanka has a long history of establishing national commissions of inquiry aimed at justice and reconciliation which have all, in practice, failed to deliver justice, truth and full reparations to victims of human rights violations.”

“Instead, Amnesty International has documented persistent patterns of abuse and a history of impunity that has persisted for decades. Even today, new reports of abductions, enforced disappearances and killings in northern Sri Lanka keep emerging – crimes which are evidently condoned by Sri Lanka’s refusal to investigate past crimes,” she said.

“The government is handling [this situation] by silencing the media and civil society,” Pearson told IPS.

“The courts and opposition political parties are all under increasing pressure. Dissent has been so effectively silenced that people now whisper their complaints. In the long term, the lack of accountability can create an atmosphere of distrust and revenge that can later be manipulated by leaders seeking to foment violence for their own political ends,” she added.