Approval by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Oct. 1 of a resolution aimed at increasing accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of its bitter civil war now leaves the 10-month-old government in Colombo with a quandary over how to put to rest the decades-long conflict.
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena on Sept. 30 spoke to the UN General Assembly, saying his government supports a “fresh universal approach” that deals honestly with the past while pursuing sustainable development. But bitterness remains on both sides in the 26-year dispute, which ended in 2009 when Sinhalese military forces under control of then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa slaughtered Tamil military and civilians alike without mercy.
Neither side covered itself with honor in the conflict, which took 80,000 t0 100,000 lives and left much of the north of the country in tatters. Three million Sri Lankans live overseas, most of them Tamils, probably permanently. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which set out in 1983 to seek redress for their Tamil minority from the excesses of the Sinhalese majority, ended up being branded as a terrorist organization by 32 countries. They were almost certainly behind the 1991 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi after Indian forces attempted to mediate the conflict.
On the other side, the Sri Lankan government forces were accused of human rights abuses, systematic impunity for serious human rights violations, lack of respect for habeas corpus in arbitrary detentions, and forced disappearancesof critics including newspaper reporters and editors.
That story is told in the United Nations report, which was issued on Sept. 16. It tells a ghastly report in which both sides committed unrestrained savagery which got worse as the conflict neared its end.
“The Panel found credible allegations associated with the final states of the war…that the Sri Lanka Army advanced its campaign into the Vanni (region) using large-scale and widespread shelling, causing large numbers of civilian deaths,” according to the executive summary.
Some 330,000 civilians were trapped between the forces in an ever-decreasing area, fleeing the shelling but kept hostage by their own army, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The government shelled three consecutive no-fire zones in which it had encouraged the civilian population to take shelter and despite the fact that it had told international observers it had ceased shelling.
“It shelled the United Nations hub, food distribution lines and near the (Red Cross) ships that were coming to pick up the wounded.” It systematically shelled hospitals on the front lines repeatedly despite the fact that the government knew they were nboncombatant areas. It systematically denied aid to the civilians, tens of thousands of whom lost their lives in the first six months of 2009.
Some of those interned were summarily executed and some of the women may have been raped. Others simply disappeared. “Massive overcrowding led to terrible conditions, breaching the basic social and economic rights of the detainees, and many lives were lost unnecessarily.”
On the other side, the Tamil Tigers were hardly any better. As they were driven back into an ever-smaller perimeter, they refused to allow civilians to leave, using them as hostages and at times using them as a strategic buffer between themselves and the advancing Sri Lankan Army. In the final stages, it pressed people of all ages including children as young as 14 into service. The Tigers forced civilians to dig trenches and emplacements, contributing to the blurring of the distinction between combatants and civilians.
“All this was done in a quest to pursue a war that was clearly lost. Many civilians were sacrificed on the altar of the LTTE cause and its efforts to preserve its senior leadership,”
By February 2009, the Tamil Tigers started shooting their own civilians point-blank as they sought to escape. They also fired artillery in proximity to large groups of internally displaced persons and continued suicide attacks on those outside the combat zone.
The UN panel found deep fault on both sides, concluding that the government committee serious violations including, by the government, widespread shelling of civilians including the shelling of hospitals and denial of humanitarian assistance and human rights violations against both internally displaced persons and suspected cadres and violations outside the conflict zone, with attacks on the media and critics of the government. On the part of the Tigers, the panel found six categories of serious violations including using civilians as a human buffer, killing those attempting to flee the Tamil corridor, forced recruitment of children and killing civilians through suicide attacks.
The question is what will be done to redress dreadful actions on both sides. The panel concluded that “the government’s notion of accountability is not in accordance with international standards,” and unless the government genuinely addresses the violations committed by both sides and places the rights and dignity of the conflict at the center of its approach, its measures will fall dramatically short of international expectations.
Sri Lanka’s own “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission,” the panel found, “fails to satisfy key international standards of independence as it is compromised by its composition and deep-seated conflicts of interests of its members.”
Sirisena, who has dramatically changed the course of the Sri Lankan government with the ouster of Rajapaska earlier this year, said his government in the wake of years of conflict, “is now moving forward with a process of truth seeking, justice, reparation and non-recurrence.”
His government, he said, has introduced and put into operation constitutional and institutional reforms required accelerating the achievement of the government’s goals.
Nonetheless, the report said that while the domestic justice system should play a leading role in pursuing accountability, “based on a review of the system’s current structure, the panel has little confidence that it will serve justice in this environment. This is due much more to a lack of political will than capacity.
The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva called for international judges and lawyers to help ensure the judicial process in Sri Lanka. The resolution by the council also calls on Sri Lanka to allow for punishment of “those most responsible for the full range of crimes.”