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War crimes

March 19, 2012

India says it is 'inclined' to vote in favor of a move at the UN Human Rights Council to force the Sri Lankan government to investigate alleged war crimes in the final stages of the civil war against Tamil rebels.

Image: dapd

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Monday that his country expected Sri Lanka to take "constructive measures for healing (the) wounds of conflict and bringing lasting peace" with the minority Tamil people.

Pressure is mounting on the UN Human Rights Council to pass a resolution on the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war. But a government delegation is doing its best to prevent this move at the end of the month.

Ethnic Tamil lawmakers have asked the United Nations Human Rights Council to press the Sri Lankan government to investigate alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity and to share power with the Tamil minority to prevent the country from sliding back into violence.

The United States are planning to bring a resolution before the council, which is currently meeting in Geneva, to urge Colombo to investigate possible war crimes during the final phase of the civil war between the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Both sides are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Some analysts estimate that up to 40,000 civilians died when the army surrounded a stretch of beach in the island state’s northeast, preventing remaining Tamil Tiger fighters and tens of thousands of civilians from escaping.

Sri Lanka has said there is no need for a UN resolution. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has even described the military campaign in 2009 as a "humanitarian mission conducted against terrorism and not against the Tamil people, aiming to liberate thousands of innocent civilians from the clutches of terrorism."

Julie de Rivero from Human Rights Watch
Julie de Rivero deplores the first Human Rights Council resolutionImage: Claudia Witte

This is a version that the government was able to defend because there were no independent witnesses in the conflict zone.

A dark moment

The South African lawyer Yasmin Sooka, who was part of a panel set up by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to investigate the allegations of atrocities during the last stages of the war, explains a "new kind of war" was waged. The government ensured that all international organizations were removed from the conflict zone and then attacked the civilian population.

Nonetheless, despite significant skepticism regarding the government’s official view in May 2009, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution praising Sri Lanka’s conduct of the war.

Julie de Rivero from Human Rights Watch says this was "one of the darkest moments for the council. At the time we would have needed a clear condemnation of the indiscriminate killing of civilians. What we got was a resolution that praised the end of the war but made no mention of the high price paid by civilians, nor of accountability for possible war crimes."

The resolution that has been put forward to the council by the US is an attempt to rectify this. Evidence has piled up over the past two years. "Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields," a documentary broadcast by Britain’s Channel 4 last year, shows shocking footage of executions and sexual violence.

Lobbying against the resolution

Sri Lankan Cabinet Minister for Plantation Mahinda Samarisinghe is currently in Geneva to prevent the resolution from going through at the end of the month. He and his 100-head delegation point out the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) set up by Sri Lanka to examine the final stages of the war ruled out that the military could have targeted civilians deliberately.

Members of the Sri Lankan delegation
Members of the Sri Lankan delegationImage: Claudia Witte

"Sri Lanka knows best how to conduct its national reconciliation process to a successful conclusion from which the whole population will benefit," Samarisinghe said last month.

The text of the US resolution acknowledges the "constructive recommendations" of the LLRC but also urges the government to investigate alleged war crimes. It does not go so far as to call for an international commission of inquiry, which US Ambassador to the Human Rights Council Eileen Donahue defends by saying pragmatism is needed.

Yolanda Foster from Amnesty International
Yolanda Foster says there is a 'climate of fear' in Sri LankaImage: Claudia Witte

"We are walking a tightrope because we want the support of the Sri Lankans," she says, although this has not been forthcoming.

"When I spoke to the Sri Lankan ambassador, she said ‘No!’ No. They don't like our initiative. They hate it." Nonetheless, she insists the resolution will remain on the table.

President Rajapaksa would prefer to steer clear of the human rights debate entirely. "It's extremely difficult to talk about human rights in Sri Lanka," says Yolanda Foster from Amnesty International. "There’s a climate of fear."

This fear can be felt in Geneva too. Members of the Sri Lankan delegation have been filming the debates about the final stages of the civil war - they are particularly attentive when Sri Lankans have the floor. Many Sri Lankan human rights activists prefer not to give their version to the council for fear of reprisals.

One civil society activist who did come to Geneva agrees to speak only on condition of anonymity. His message to the human rights council would be that it has to maintain the pressure. "It’s very clear that Sri Lanka does react to international pressure. This has to be kept up so human rights in Sri Lanka can gradually improve."

Author: Claudia Witte / act / ss
Editor: Grahame Lucas