Sri Lanka to probe alleged wartime human rights abuses

Sri Lanka promised to conduct its own human rights inquiry after the EU and US released reports on abuse last week. But critics say the government may whitewash its findings.

Sri Lanka has responded to mounting international criticisms of its wartime conduct by announcing it will appoint a "homegrown" committee to probe alleged human rights abuses.

Critics fear, however, that a local inquiry will fail to uncover what really went on as the island's hard-line Sinhalese government prosecuted its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a rebel group that fought for a homeland for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority.

Previous government-appointed inquiries into human rights violations have yielded few facts, while international human rights groups have been expelled from the island. With this history, some international observers worry that the inquiry has been announced to silence international criticism and that a government-appointed probe may result in a whitewash.

Barrage of reports detailing abuse

Since it declared the end of its 25-year war against the LTTE in May, Sri Lanka has faced growing calls to investigate reports of government-ordered abuses of civilians.

Last Thursday, the US State Department submitted a report to Congress that described alleged abuses by the Sri Lankan Army as well as rebels.

That report – compiled from intelligence findings as well as testimonies from charities, media, and foreign government sources – detailed claims that Army forces abducted and killed Tamil civilians and bombed no-fire zones. Though its sources are believed to be credible, the State Department says its report does not constitute official allegations of war crimes and it urges a full investigation.

Three days earlier the European Union had published a report cataloguing government-backed human rights abuses including torture and police violence. "Unlawful killings are a major problem in Sri Lanka, perpetrated by soldiers, police, paramilitary groups or others, not only during the course of active hostilities," it said.

The report could prompt the EU to end trade concessions worth $100 million. Sri Lanka has promised to respond to it by a Nov. 6 deadline.

Also last week, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights suggested that an external inquiry similar to the one that investigated fighting in Gaza was probably required in Sri Lanka.

The last stage of the war, when the Army fought to take the north of the island – run by the LTTE for years as a de facto state – was especially brutal, and there are still no reliable estimates of a civilian death toll. The Army was accused of indiscriminate bombardment and using heavy weaponry in areas where civilians were present.

Stifling critics at home

Sri Lanka's announcement that a Sri Lankan group will investigate claims it committed abuses comes without the international oversight that foreign observers were hoping for.

An inquiry into the murders of 17 aid workers in 2006 – widely blamed on security forces – never saw the light of day. "If that report still has not been made public, what is the point of starting a new local report?" asks Suhas Chakma of the Asian Centre for Human Rights based in New Delhi.

Meanwhile, the island's response to the new US report has been pugnacious. Sri Lanka's government said it was unsubstantiated and claimed that the Army had zealously defended the lives of civilians.

In recent months, there has been a growing movement to stifle dissent and criticism of the island's government. Journalists have fled after colleagues have been beaten up, imprisoned, and killed.

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