Sri Lanka’s War Criminals Must Be Punished

Kavita Krishnan

The Sri Lankan Tamils, subjected to a genocide in the name of eliminating LTTE, and intimidated by the arrogant triumphalism of the Sri Lankan state following the military ‘victory,’ had till now looked in vain for UN intervention. For long, the UN as well as most other nations including the Indian Government remained reluctant to challenge the Sri Lankan Government’s claims of having begun a process of achieving justice, peace, and equality. But a recent report by a UN panel of experts has finally exploded that myth, and found the Sri Lankan Government guilty of war crimes and human rights violations. 
Last year, quite belatedly, the UN Secretary General appointed a panel of experts to look into the situation in Sri Lanka. This United Nations Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka has recently submitted its report, finding the Sri Lankan Government guilty of war crimes in the final stages of the war with the LTTE and serious rights violations and abuses in the post-war situation.
The Report has found allegations of war crimes to be “credible” and held the Sri Lankan Government and military to be responsible for rights violations amounting to “war crimes and crimes against humanity.” The Report has said that it found a “very different version of the final stages of the war” to that peddled by the SL Government.
Whereas the Government claimed to have conducted a “humanitarian rescue operation” with “zero civilian casualties,” the UN Report found that between Sept 2008-May 2009, 330,000 people trapped in the Vanni area of Sri Lanka were subjected to widespread shelling causing civilian deaths. Also media was intimidated and silenced and prevented from reporting accurately on the situation in the conflict zones. The UN Report notes that the Sri Lankan Government resorted to shelling in areas where it had encouraged civilians to concentrate and even conducted shelling on food lines and near Red Cross ships coming to pick up the wounded and survivors. There was “systematic” and repeated “shelling of hospitals” and people in the conflict zone were “systematically” deprived of humanitarian aid, food, and medicine. According to the Report, tens of thousands of civilians died during the final stages of the war, mainly due to military shelling.
According to the Report, after the survivors left the conflict zones, they were subjected to further deprivation and abuses. Supposed LTTE elements were identified through a process that lacked transparency, and many of them were summarily executed. There were many cases of torture, rape and ‘disappearances’ of tens of thousands. Overcrowding and terrible humanitarian conditions in the camps led to needless loss of lives.
The Report also found the LTTE responsible for war crimes such as using civilians as hostages or strategic buffer, subjecting civilians to forced recruitment and forced labour, and shooting of civilians seeking to escape. But the Report’s main focus is on the culpability of the Government and the military.   
Reviewing the process of establishing ‘accountability’ initiated by the SL Government, the UN Report has noted that this process is biased because it only covers the allegations against LTTE and against former Government’s policies which failed to protect people from terrorism. There is absolutely no serious examination of the Government’s own conduct during and after the war. The SL Government has formed a ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Council,’ but the UN Report has pointed out that this Council is far from being independent and impartial, and fails to meet the international standards of an effective accountability mechanism, since it is unwilling to examine the root causes of the decades-long Sinhala-Tamil conflict or establish the truth about allegations of rights violations during the final stages of war.
The UN Report has observed that an environment conducive to true accountability would require a “candid appraisal” of the past, including the root causes of the ethnic conflict, and a “fundamental shift away from triumphalism and denial towards a genuine commitment to a political solution that recognizes SL’s ethnic diversity and the full and inclusive citizenship of all its people.” 
The UN Report also admits that the UN system and institutions failed to save civilian lives even though they were aware of large-scale civilian casualties. 
The Report has made recommendations that the SL Government initiate investigations into allegations of war crimes, in the light of UN Panel’s report which has found credible evidence for such allegations. It has also recommended an independent international mechanism to monitor the SL Govt’s accountability and investigation process.
The Report recommends that the SL Government take steps to immediately stop the ongoing violence and discrimination, and restore dignity and rights to the survivors; investigate and disclose fate of disappeared persons; repeal Emergency regulations and modify all those provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act that conflict with international obligations and take measures to end the “climate of fear.” It also recommends that the SL Government should initiate a process with strong civil society participation to critically examine the root causes of conflict and pattern of violations during the war. Significantly, it also recommends that the Government should issue a public, formal acknowledgement of its role and responsibility for extensive civilian casualties in the final stages of the war, and make serious reparations in keeping with international standards to all victims of violations, especially women, children and vulnerable groups.
The Report also recommends that the UN Human Rights Council review its seriously flawed May 2009 Special Session resolution on Sri Lanka, in light of the findings of the UN Panel. That resolution had shamefully praised the SL Government and had failed even to express concern for the thousands of civilians who faced indefinite detention. It should be noted that India was among the countries which led the efforts to actively block the attempts to pass a stronger resolution holding the SL Government accountable to human rights. The Report further recommends that the Secretary General should initiate a comprehensive review of the role of the UN system during and after the conflict.
After the UN Panel’s Report, there is no longer any excuse to delay the task of bringing the war criminals in the Sri Lankan Government and military to justice. President Rajapakse and his government must be prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The Indian Government (led by the Congress with DMK as a coalition partner) is shamefully complicit in the crimes committed against the Tamils in Sri Lanka. The Indian Government must break its diplomatic silence on the findings of the UN Report, and must actively intervene to pursue international processes to prosecute the Sri Lankan Government for war crimes. 

A lasting political solution and peace in Sri Lanka can only be built on a foundation of truth and justice. An impartial investigation must be conducted, perpetrators of war crimes must face stern punishment, and the rights and dignity of Tamils in today’s Sri Lanka safeguarded.