Thursday, October 20, 2011

Secrecy and denial are also war crimes

By Gordon Weiss | The Australian

More than two years since the end of Sri Lanka's civil war, new evidence alleges that both sides of this brutal conflict committed serious crimes against civilians.

There are implications for Australia's rule of law, and three possible perpetrators with an immediate connection to our shores.

Sri Lanka's 25-year war culminated in 2009. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians were swept up in a final siege as Sri Lankan troops closed in on the Tamil Tigers. The guerillas held women, children and elderly people as human shields. Government assaults killed many thousands.

A brief of evidence handed last week to Australian authorities by the International Commission of Jurists (Australia) reportedly includes eyewitness testimony from those who lost family and friends in those months. A number of witnesses are Australians, or Australian residents.

Compiled by Australian lawyers, this brief apparently triangulates incidents of the killing of civilians. These include attacks on hospitals; targeting civilians with bombardment after directing them to particular areas; striking civilians with cluster and phosphorus weapons; using civilians as human shields; summary executions; torture; disappearance and the denial of food and medicine.

The commission's brief reportedly urges the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions and Australian Federal Police to investigate three people in particular.

The first is Sri Lanka's new ambassador to Australia, Thisara Samarasinghe, formerly an admiral whose ships allegedly bombarded civilian "no-fire zones" declared by the government. Similar allegations compelled Sri Lanka to withdraw another of its military envoys from Germany.

The second is Palitha Kohona, a dual Australian-Sri Lankan national, once an Australian foreign affairs functionary and now Sri Lanka's ambassador to the UN in New York. He is accused of having lured a group into surrender who were then summarily executed. Kohona denies that he held any authority that led to these murders.

The last is Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's popular president. As commander-in-chief, he bears responsibility for the alleged wrongdoing of his men. Rajapaksa faces a civil suit in the US over similar allegations. In a fortnight he will arrive in Perth to meet other Commonwealth heads of government, as well as the Queen.

The Tamil Tiger leadership was all but wiped out in 2009. Those left to face allegations of murder are from the victorious army. Sri Lanka now smarts under increasingly detailed allegations it says unfairly targets them. It nominates the commission among a lengthy list of agitators supposedly bent on destroying its hard-won peace.

Reading from the cheat sheets compiled by international publicity agencies such as Bell-Pottinger, whose murky Sri Lankan links with disgraced former British defence minister Liam Fox have just been exposed, Samarasinghe said that the commission's brief was "politically motivated".

However, this response underscores the confusion between politics and law that has bedevilled modern Sri Lanka. Disappearance and murder became the stock-in-trade of politics under successive governments. Political interference, fear of retribution, and the deleterious effects of a constant national emergency have sapped the deterrent powers of its once respected judiciary.

During the war, the government controlled the siege area. No foreign journalists could fully report on the conflict. Unlike the killing fields of Bosnia, no independent witness has had access to Sri Lanka's battle zone since.

The best evidence of what happened amid the fog of war lies with people who were there. They are beginning to talk with groups such as the commission.

Don't-ask, don't-tell no longer works with war crimes. The international community has become increasingly intolerant of governments solving their internal problems with impunity.

Ethical considerations aside, a secure and orderly global framework requires that international laws and treaties be respected, even when responding to an insurgency.

Yet Sri Lanka's consistent response to allegations since the end of the war has been blanket denial. For years its envoys insisted their forces were not responsible for a single civilian death. As a result of pressure from emerging evidence, they now admit they may have been responsible for some civilian deaths, albeit unwittingly.

Australia has a duty, under our own laws and in accordance with our international legal obligations, to investigate credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Julia Gillard should join Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's public commitment and boycott next year's Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting should Sri Lanka not satisfactorily account for the deaths of civilians. Incredibly, CHOGM 2013 is scheduled for Hambantota, Rajapaksa's hometown.

Gordon Weiss, the UN spokesman in Sri Lanka during the war, is the author of The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers.

© The Australian

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