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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.

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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.

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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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