Sri Lanka, UN duel over wartime investigations

A UN panel is set to monitor how Sri Lanka responds to allegations of violating human rights during the end of its civil war with the Tamil Tigers. But Sri Lanka has resisted this and other outside attempts at accountability.

By , Correspondent

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    A former Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger member receives instructions during job training in Colombo, Sri Lanka, June 1. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has set up a panel of experts to advise him on Sri Lanka’s progress on accountability on human rights issues during the end of its civil war with the Tamil Tigers.
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One year after Sri Lanka’s decisive victory over Tamil insurgents, controversy still swirls over the bloody end to the 26-year civil war.

Sri Lankan officials argue that they defeated an outlawed terrorist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which had refused to make peace. They insist that their military strategy was legitimate and had popular support. Political leaders have drawn parallels to America's wartime actions and asked why nobody calls Western powers to account for civilian suffering.

Critics say both parties to the conflict violated international humanitarian laws and terrorized trapped civilians. Human rights groups have called for an international inquiry into the war’s final stages, when tens of thousands of civilians may have died during repeated shelling by government forces of designated no-fire zones.

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United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has waded into the debate by setting up a panel of experts to advise him on Sri Lanka’s progress on accountability on human rights issues. The panel’s members have not been appointed, but the idea has met strong resistance from Sri Lanka. It fears a repeat of the Goldstone inquiry into the 2008 Gaza conflict – which accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes – and being subjected to a tribunal.

Sri Lanka fights back with own report

In an attempt to stall such efforts, Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa recently named his own commission of inquiry into the conflict between 2002 and 2009. A former chief justice will head the “Lessons Learnt Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” which has yet to begin its work. 2002 was the year of a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire and the start of peace talks with the LTTE.

This approach got a diplomatic boost late last month when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave it her public support after meeting Sri Lanka’s visiting foreign minister. In a statement, Ms. Clinton said the commission “held promise” and that she expected it would “fully investigate serious allegations of violation.” She added that the Sri Lankan panel should be "independent, impartial and competent.”

Human rights groups point out that previous inquiries into wartime abuses, including abductions by paramilitaries and related violence, failed to lead to any prosecutions and that their findings were often suppressed by authorities.

“There’s no precedent for a productive investigative commission in Sri Lanka and lots of precedents for failed commissions and failed inquiries,” says Alan Keenan, an analyst for the International Crisis Group in London and coauthor of a recent report into the final months of the conflict.

War’s final months killed thousands

The report, which Sri Lanka’s government has rejected as biased, cites evidence that security forces intentionally shelled hospitals and other nonmilitary facilities in the conflict zone and argues that government officials “failed to protect the civilian population as they were obliged to under the laws of war.” It also castigates the LTTE for forcing children to fight and for using civilians as shields against government troops.

Before surrendering last year, LTTE fighters were corralled into a strip of beach on Sri Lanka’s northeastern coast. An internal UN report last year estimated that 7,000 Tamil civilians died between January and early April. The ICG report says that the final toll was probably much higher. At least 300,000 civilians were trapped behind LTTE lines and the survivors were later interned in camps.

Sri Lanka’s government has denied that it bombed civilians, and accused the UN and aid organizations of falling for LTTE propaganda. Analysts have said that the LTTE sought to exploit the plight of civilians in order to get international support for a ceasefire in the face of imminent defeat.

Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka’s representative to the UN, says that any external probe into the conflict would be unpopular in Sri Lanka and smacked of “paternalism.” He says Secretary-General Ban had not been authorized by any organ of the UN to investigate events and insisted that Sri Lanka’s own inquiry would be wide-ranging and authoritative.

He also questioned the basis of calls for accountability. “Why should Sri Lanka, which successfully defeated a deadly terrorist group, be subjected to such an inquiry when no other victor in history has been subjected to any such international inquiry?” he wrote in an email.

UN report has limited reach

Mr. Ban’s panel will have a mandate only to advise him on how Sri Lanka had responded to alleged rights violations. Analysts say that it lacks the powers of inquiry of the Goldstone panel, which was formed by the UN Human Rights Commission. It could provide the basis for Ban to take further options, such as recommending a war crimes tribunal, though that seems a remote possibility.

Mr. Keenan says that Sri Lanka’s success in quelling a long-running insurgency had been noted by other countries facing domestic rebellions. But he argues that it was not necessarily an effective strategy if it wasn’t paired with a reconciliation program that tackled the root causes of political violence, including interethnic conflicts.

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