Saturday, April 23, 2011

UN rejects Sri Lanka`s call to hold back war crimes report

By Masood Haider | Dawn

The United Nations declared on Thursday (21) that a report by its panel of experts on Sri Lanka “will be published in full and without amendment”, despite protests from the Sri-Lankan foreign minister.

Responding to questions on the controversy generated by the report in Sri Lanka, spokesman Farhan Haq said: “As wev`e repeated from the outset it is our intention to release it as soon as possible.”

Mr Haq also said that the UN was awaiting a response from the government of Sri Lanka on the report saying “we would like to publish it simultaneously with a response from the Sri Lankan government”.

At a press conference in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka`s Foreign Minister G.L. Perisis urged UN not to publish the report as it would stall the reconciliation process and damage relations between Sri Lanka and the world body.

The UN panel found “credible allegations” of civilian deaths, which it blamed mostly on the government, and urged the prosecution of those responsible for violations in the last stage of a quarter-century war with ethnic Tamil separatists.

Besides, excerpts of the findings of an advisory panel appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have been leaked to Sri Lankan newspapers.

“Everybody knew what happened, so what`s the point of punishing now?”, asked Prithika Shanmugam, a 27-year-old Tamil, according to an agency report.

Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris again rejected the report as flawed.

“The charges are unsubstantiated,” he said at the news conference also attended by his Bangladesh counterpart Dipu Moni. “The evidences are weak and not appropriate.”


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Saturday, April 23, 2011

UN report verifies Sri Lankan government war crimes

By Sarath Kumara | World Socialist Web Site

The Expert Panel appointed by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to advise on human rights violations in Sri Lanka found “credible allegations” that the Colombo government committed a “wide range of serious violations” of international law, some of which “would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The three-member panel was belatedly appointed in March 2010, after widespread accounts of atrocities carried out by the Sri Lankan military in the final months of its long-running war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that ended in May 2009.

The full 196-page report is yet to be officially released, but the executive summary was leaked to the media last Saturday. It rebuts the claims made by President Mahinda Rajapakse and other Sri Lankan politicians that the military was engaged in a “humanitarian rescue operation” with a policy of “zero civilian casualties.”

The report, which covers the period from September 2008 to May 2009, concludes that the military campaign into the LTTE-held Vanni region used “large-scale and widespread shelling causing large numbers of civilian deaths. This campaign constituted persecution of the population of the Vanni. Around 330,000 civilians were trapped into an ever-decreasing area, fleeing the shelling but kept hostage by the LTTE. The government sought to intimidate and silence the media and other critics of the war through a variety of threats and actions, including the use of white vans to abduct and to make people disappear.”

The persecution of the Tamil population underlines the communal character of the civil war. Successive Colombo governments fought the war to entrench the dominance of the Sinhala elite that has used communal violence and systematic discrimination against the Tamil minority for decades to divide working people to maintain its rule.

The executive summary also accuses the LTTE of refusing to allow civilians to leave its territory—in the final months shooting those who attempted to leave—and forcibly recruiting children as young as 14. Such practices make clear that the LTTE’s defeat was primarily political, not military. Confronted with a concerted government offensive, the LTTE was unable to mobilise any significant active political support from the Tamil population, let alone more broadly from the working class in Sri Lanka and internationally.

However, as the report stated, “most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling.” The military bombarded its own “no-fire zones” where it had encouraged civilians to congregate and assured them of protection. Despite being informed of their locations, the government shelled the “United Nations hub, food distribution lines and near the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) ships that were coming to pick up the wounded and their relatives from the beaches.”

The government also shelled designated hospitals, some repeatedly, and “systematically deprived people in the conflict zone of humanitarian aid, in the form of food and medical supplies, particularly surgical supplies, adding to their suffering”.

The government and military deliberately underestimated the number of civilians trapped in the LTTE-held zone in order to cover up the number of dead and wounded that resulted from its shelling. The UN report estimated that “tens of thousands lost their lives from January to May 2009, many of whom died anonymously in the carnage of the final few days.” The figure is significantly higher than the previous UN estimate of 7,000.

Following the LTTE’s military collapse, around 280,000 civilians—men, women and children—were forcibly and illegally detained in so-called welfare camps run by the military. “Massive overcrowding led to terrible conditions, breaching the basic social and economic rights of the detainees, and many lives were lost unnecessarily,” the report stated. Some of those singled out as “LTTE suspects” were tortured and summarily executed and the remainder sent to secret prisons.

Nearly two years after the LTTE’s defeat, the pervasive role of the military and the government’s anti-democratic measures continue. As well as the ongoing use of emergency powers and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the report drew attention to “the continued militarisation of the former conflict zone and the use of paramilitary proxies, all of which perpetuate a climate of fear, intimidation and violence.”

Despite the seriousness of these crimes, the Expert Panel’s recommendations effectively let those responsible off the hook. The report was scathing on the lack of accountability through the Sri Lankan court system and described the government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) as lacking “independence and impartiality” and compromised by the “deep-seated conflicts of interests of some of its members.”

However, the report’s main recommendation leaves the investigation of the war crimes to the Sri Lankan government—that is, in the hands of the criminals themselves. It calls for the Rajapakse regime to immediately commence “genuine investigations” into the “credible allegations” of international law identified by the panel. A separate international mechanism is proposed to monitor and assist the Sri Lankan government.

The Rajapakse administration immediately dismissed the UN report with contempt. In a brief statement, the External Affairs Ministry declared that “the UN report is fundamentally flawed in many respects.” It went on: “Among other deficiencies, the report is based on patently biased material which is presented without any verification.”

The response is hardly surprising. President Rajapakse was hostile to the UN Panel from the outset and refused to allow its members to visit the country or interview civilian or military officials. In other words, the government actively blocked evidence gathering, in the same way that it prevented the media and most aid organisations from the war zone in the final months of the war. It continues to deny responsibility for any civilian deaths.

At the same time, the government is mounting a crude anti-Western propaganda campaign, claiming that the country faces a vast international conspiracy. Rajapakse has called on his Sri Lankan Freedom Party to organise a May Day rally as a “show of strength” against the UN Panel report and any calls for war crimes investigations.

Rajapakse accused Western countries of conducting a campaign to punish Sri Lanka for defeating the LTTE. The claim is ludicrous. Right up until the final months of the war, the US and European powers had quietly backed Rajapakse’s renewed war against the LTTE, the military’s open breaches of the 2002 ceasefire and its shelling of civilians, abductions and extrajudicial killings.

The US and its European allies only began to raise concerns about the Sri Lankan military’s actions in the final months of the war when the scale of the savagery became apparent and was generating international outrage. Even then, the main purpose of the limited criticisms of Western powers was not to prevent the slaughter under way, but rather to boost their political influence in Colombo.

The US in particular was deeply concerned that rival China had exploited the conflict to forge close ties with the Rajapakse government by providing military, financial and political support. China had already been granted the contract to build a sophisticated modern port at Hambantota in the south of the island. The port is part of a broader Chinese plan to build harbours adjacent to key shipping routes from Africa and the Middle East to North East Asia.

The US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Robert Blake, underscored Washington’s vital interests in Sri Lanka in comments on April 5 to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Positioned directly on the shipping routes that carry petroleum products and other trade from the Gulf to East Asia, Sri Lanka remains of strategic interest to the US,” he explained.

While the government’s record on human rights and the weakening of democratic institutions was “worrisome,” Blake declared, “Sri Lanka stands poised to be a capable and willing partner to effectively combat violent extremism, trafficking and piracy, and thereby help to ensure the maritime security of the region.” Since late 2009, Washington has further played down “human rights”, as it has sought other means to establish the Rajapakse government as a reliable US partner.

Even the UN report was compelled to acknowledge that the UN Security Council and other UN bodies “failed to take actions,” including in the final months of the war, to protect civilians. The “failure” simply demonstrates that lack of any real interest in the plight of hundreds of thousands of civilians on the part of all the major powers as each sought to exploit the issue for its own political ends. The same considerations will determine the fate of the Expert Panel report itself.


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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sri Lanka: Cry from the Graves?

By Sivanendran | South Asia Analysis Group

The end of the three decade old civil war that pitted the government against the LTTE and divided the population created a reasonable expectation that Sri Lanka would be able to reach reconciliation and healing, which would pave the way for rapid economic progress. But alas the country appears to be getting more divided and polarised than ever before.

Fifty years of ethnic cleansing have wiped out whole generations who knew any sort of peace, and have made cohabitation between the Tamils and the Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka virtually impossible. The Sinhala politicians have transformed the country into a counter-insurgency state like Columbia, in which repression, torture, imprisonment without trial and disappeared people are institutionally embedded. It appears that it is an extremely difficult task for the Sri Lankans to reverse this process.

Violation of Human Rights in Sri Lanka

With the end of the civil war, there was a glimmer of hope in resolving the longstanding crisis. However, this is unlikely. The current regime having come back to power appears to block meaningful efforts at accountability of individuals for past violations of human rights.

Sri Lanka will continue to be faced in the future by challenges of justice and reconciliation arising from the grave human rights abuses that have been committed by all armed groups in the course of the conflict, as documented over the years by international human rights groups and UN bodies, which have long declared that impunity reigns increasingly unchallenged in the country.

When the Sri Lankan Government formally terminated the ceasefire agreement in January 2008, the previous UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, warned that violations of human rights and humanitarian law could entail individual criminal responsibility under international criminal law, including by those in positions of command. She and her successor, Navi Pillay, have had cause to repeat this warning on several occasions since.

In the course of fighting, both sides violated humanitarian law. The LTTE forcibly conscripted adults and children, and forced civilians to travel with its retreating forces and to serve as a buffer against the approaching Sri Lankan army. Thousands of these civilians died when government forces fired artillery into areas densely populated with civilians, who were forced to remain at risk in the conflict zone. The LTTE reportedly opened fire on and killed civilians who attempted to escape.

The Culture of Violence continues

The demand of the Tamil people for a separate state started only after the repeated pogroms suffered by the Tamil people at the hands of the Sinhalese. Inaction by successive governments in Sri Lanka to provide security to the Tamils resulted in their alienation from the Sri Lankan state as it progressively identified with the Sinhala thugs in the streets. Instead of providing protection to its citizens the Sri Lankan state became more tolerant of the inciters to violence on the Tamils. This resulted in the demand for Ealam, a separate state by the Tamil people.

Nothing has changed for the Tamils since the end of the war. In the North the Tamil people are terrorised by an occupied Sinhala army and kept virtually in an open prison. The Tamils in the East are condemned to live in terror of being killed under the joint patronage of the government and the feuding para-militaries. And in the Vanni, where a battle was waged between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan State - where the Government indiscriminately bombed and maimed the Tamils who they claim to be their own citizens – the whole area is evacuated since the war and the government is cleaning up the land and removing all evidence of its atrocities. And in the remainder of Sri Lanka, where any Tamil is viewed with suspicion and treated more as an outsider than as a citizen of Sri Lanka, subjected to arbitrary arrests, killings, kidnappings, extortion all carried out with impunity from apprehension or justice. In short, the Tamil people are still languishing in all corners of the Sri Lankan state and find themselves as exiles in their own land.

The government removed all international NGO’s, UN organisations and all media from the war zone and continued with a war described as a War without Witness. The civil war thus created more than 500,000 Internally Displaced People (IDP), most of them still dispersed and still living outside their homes. The IDP’s have been generated by the expulsion of the Tamil population from their land so that the security forces could establish secure areas. Hence the entire Tamil population along the coastal line of the Northeast have been expelled. Further the people who inhabited the Vanni areas are now dispersed.

Further, it is estimated that more than 100,000 Tamils must have perished during the civil war over the past 25 years and at least a further 100,000 maimed and injured. It is estimated that another 50,000 – 100,000 were killed during the last weeks of the war. It suggests a determination by the State to simply wipe out as many people as possible and not to follow the rules of international humanitarian law. Some of those who came to surrender to the security forces holding a white flag were shot. There is video footage of troops killing surrendered people that is published and verified for its accuracy.

There have been reports of abductions of children from the camps and the ‘disappearance’ or murder, possibly by paramilitary groups operating within the camps, of LTTE cadres who are currently being held in them. Once they have been identified, the authorities are sending LTTE cadres to separate camps where they will undergo “rehabilitation”. There have been accusations that the authorities are treating every civilian in the camps as a possible LTTE suspect and sent to special camps.

4.1 Cry for Justice

In the circumstances, accounting for the conduct of soldiers, their commanding officers, and civilian superiors during the fighting is crucial. However, it is only part of the challenge Sri Lanka faces in repairing its battered human rights record and restoring public faith in its government, justice system and the rule of law. Today Sri Lanka has a chance to rebuild its institutions so that they can protect efficiently and without discrimination the human rights of every woman, man and child. Accountability for violations of human rights and humanitarian law is an important precondition to bind up the nations wounds and rebuild the country and achieve a lasting peace.

The conflict in Sri Lanka has not yet been put on the formal agenda of the UN Security Council as a country situation. While in general there was little appetite for doing so until late 2008, in recent months it is Russia and China that have blocked more concerted efforts by other members of the Security Council. The apparent inaction of the Security Council has been the subject of heavy criticism by those who believe it should have played a much more active role than it has. More than anybody else the suffering Tamils have been crying silently for justice for those killed in the bloody massacre in the early months of 2009.

United Nations and the International Community

There has also been some activity on Sri Lanka within UN human rights mechanisms. Since late 2007, international human rights groups and their local allies have been lobbying for a UN human rights monitoring mission to be established in Sri Lanka, supported by the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour and her successor, Navi Pillay. These calls have been consistently rejected by the Sri Lankan Government but remain ‘on the table’ internationally, at least in theory.

Efforts at the 10th session of the HRC in March 2009 to win agreement to hold a special session on Sri Lanka were unsuccessful, despite support from some European countries. However, attempts to secure such a session continued and a special session eventually took place on 26-27 May. The Sri Lankan Government marshalled support from China, Russia, India, Pakistan and other countries to prevent a critical resolution being passed. Despite the efforts of a range of western governments, there was no call in the resolution that was eventually passed for an international war crimes investigation like the one it had mandated earlier in the year with regard to the conflict in Gaza.

Sri Lanka will also continue to be faced in the future by challenges of justice and reconciliation arising from the grave human rights abuses that have been committed by all armed groups in the course of the conflict, as documented over the years by international human rights groups and UN bodies, which have long declared that impunity reigns increasingly unchallenged in the country.

At an event in the IVTY courtroom, marking the Srebrenica massacre in July 2010, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon stressed the need to ensure accountability for those involved in the Muslim men by Bosnian Serb forces after they took over Srebrenica. He said “Until all those accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes face those charges and are judged, our quest for justice, and the path towards healing, will remain incomplete.” Further, he said, “ We recognize the burden of families and loved ones who carry the memories and pain with each step,” and noted “And, we vow, together, never again to allow such an atrocity to happen at any any place.” The Secretary General observed that the emergence of respect and trust after conflict depends heavily on bringing the perpetrators to account.

Sri Lankan Government

The Sri Lankan Government has said that its own courts will look into any war crimes allegations, although it has already stated that it believes such allegations to be unfounded. It seems highly unlikely, given the past record of the Government and the judiciary, that there will be a credible domestic judicial investigation into allegations that genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed in the course of the conflict, with the possible exception of the former LTTE cadres now in custody.

However, in that event an international investigation of some kind remains possible. The US and EU have now endorsed the idea. The Security Council or the Human Rights Council could initiate such an investigation. However, Sri Lanka probably has enough allies on both bodies to prevent such an outcome.

For its part, the ICC could take up the issue either through referral by the Security Council (extremely unlikely) or under the independent authority of the Prosecutor. The latter would be highly controversial. The Prosecutor has not yet used this power and Sri Lanka is not a State Party to the Rome Statute. However, there have been calls by advocates of the Tamil cause for him to take up the issue of war crimes committed by four senior officials. He has not yet officially responded. Efforts to establish some kind of international war crimes investigation look set to continue, but the odds are strongly against a role for the ICC.

However, the mounting humanitarian crisis has compelled the UN Secretary General to name a panel of experts to advise him, on the way forward on accountability issues related to Sri Lanka. There recommendations have been handed over to the Secretary General. At present there is a tussle going on behind the scenes. Meanwhile, portions of the documents have been leaked to the press. Will these recommendations answer the prayers of the victims of this massacre? The Truth must be told and Justice must be done.


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Saturday, April 23, 2011

UN heads for rights confrontation with Sri Lanka

By Tim Witcher | AFP

The United Nations hurtled toward a high-profile confrontation with the Sri Lankan government over international action on alleged war crimes during a military offensive against Tamil separatists.

Rejecting a Sri Lankan demand to keep a report by a panel of experts secret, the United Nations on Friday said the report would soon be published in full without changes, and accompanied by recommendations on the next steps to be taken.

The United Nations said it was in talks with Sri Lankan authorities on an offer to add their comments to the report into the alleged deaths of tens of thousands of people when government forces launched a final offensive against Tamil separatists in 2009.

Diplomats noted, however, that Sri Lanka had sought the help of international allies to try and get the recommendations of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suppressed.

"With Russia and China already trying to intimidate him (Ban), other Security Council members and countries attached to the idea of justice should come to his support," said Human Rights Watch's UN director Philippe Bolopion.

"It remains our intention to publish the report of the panel of experts on Sri Lanka in full and without amendment," said deputy UN spokesman Farhan Haq.

Ban returns to New York from a trip to Europe on Saturday and the report could be released on Monday, according to diplomats.

"The secretary-general believes that the panel has done a good and conscientious job and that the results of the report will speak for themselves," Haq said, noting Ban would have recommendations on how to proceed.

Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris had earlier urged Ban to refrain from releasing the report he called "preposterous."

"The publication of this report will cause irreparable damage to the reconciliation efforts of Sri Lanka. It will damage the UN system too," Peiris said in Colombo.

According to parts of the report leaked to the Sri Lankan media, the UN panel recommends an inquiry into "credible allegations" of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the government and the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels.

The United Nations has said the leaked parts are accurate but incomplete.

It says "tens of thousands" of people died between January and May 2009 in the final government offensive that crushed the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, ending a decades-old conflict.

The Sri Lankan government has said no civilians were killed during the offensive. President Mahinda Rajapakse has called on supporters to turn this year's May Day rally into a demonstration against any UN investigation.

The UN spokesman said the report had played a key role in fulfilling part of an agreement on accountability reached when Ban traveled to Sri Lanka in 2009.

"After giving some time for the government of Sri Lanka to pursue the issue of accountability on its own, the secretary-general believed last year that he needed to form an independent panel to look at the issues of accountability," said Haq, insisting the United Nations acted "in good faith" with Sri Lanka.

"This is a very serious issue and it is very important that this report comes out."

Rights groups backed the tough UN stance.

"The government's aggressive efforts to suppress the report and deny any wrongdoing only confirm that justice won't come from a domestic process," said Human Rights Watch's Bolopion.

"Ban has done the right thing by creating the advisory panel and announcing that he would make its report public. He should now follow up his panel's advice by creating an international commission of inquiry."

© Yahoo! News

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sri Lanka: War Crimes

Al Jazeera

In May 2009, Sri Lanka's decades long civil war with the Tamil Tigers, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam came to a bloody close after government forces launched a massive offensive.

What exactly happened during the last days of the battle is still the subject of fierce debate, but it is clear that as the rebel perimeter shrank, around a third of a million civilians were trapped between the two armies and tens of thousands were killed.

The government says the LTTE were using civilians as human shields, Tamil exiles say the deaths were the result of indiscriminate shelling by the Sri Lankan army. The LTTE was crushed in the offensive, most of its leaders killed and thousands were captured and imprisoned but the Sri Lankan government has so far refused to agree to an independent, international war crimes investigation.

Now a UN panel has found that the allegations against both sides are credible saying they may have committed serious violations of humanitarian law.

As Juliana Ruhfus and Dom Rotheroe have been finding out, unless and until the truth is established, a final reconciliation in Sri Lanka may prove impossible.

Some of the images in their film are deeply disturbing.

© Al Jazeera

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