28 April 2011.
The Times newspaper (London) said Wednesday that the UN expert panel’s report on Sri Lanka’s war crimes confirms the newspaper’s reporting in May 2009 that the “Sri Lankan Government was party to the mass murder of civilians.” Referring especially to mass bombardment of civilians in so-called no-fire zones, the paper demanded that “perpetrators of this war crime should be pursued and targeted with sanctions by the UN and other international organisations.” Dismissing Colombo’s claim that the UN panel’s conclusions would inflict “irrevocable damage” on postwar efforts of reconciliation as “disingenuous”, the paper singled out India especially to act over Sri Lanka’s war crimes.
The text of The Times’ editorial, titled “Colombo’s Crimes” follows:
A ferocious civil war came to a bloody end on a strip of beach in May 2009. Sri Lankan forces had been battling the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) for 27 years.
The Times revealed at the time, with harrowing testimony and photographic evidence, that government troops had killed at least 20,000 civilians in these closing stages of the conflict. Speaking to this newspaper last December, President Rajapaksa denied it. He commented obscurely and evasively that “Sri Lanka never killed any civilians as such”. A UN report now confirms that he was lying and we told the truth.
The report by a panel of experts labours to be even-handed in its judgments, but it makes clear that the Sri Lankan Government was party to the mass murder of civilians. It finds that tens of thousands were killed when Sri Lankan forces shelled an area that had previously been designated a no-fire zone. Perversely and chillingly, Tamil civilians had been encouraged to take refuge there. The perpetrators of this war crime should be pursued and targeted with sanctions by the UN and other international organisations.
Tamils have justifiable demands for constitutional changes that would give them a share in power. But the defeated Tamil Tigers committed unspeakable acts during Sri Lanka’s civil war, not least against Tamil opponents. Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the slain leader of the LTTE, was a pioneer in the use of suicide terrorism. It is a mere truism that none of this justifies the carnage that government forces wreaked, but it should be stated nonetheless because of an official campaign to rubbish the UN panel’s conclusions.
The Sri Lankan Government objects that the report’s conclusions inflict “irrevocable damage” on postwar efforts of reconciliation. That is disingenuous. There can be a process of truth and reconciliation after a civil war only if the truth is acknowledged. And the evidence is damning: government troops continually adjusted artillery in order to target the supposed safe area in which more than 300,000 civilians were crammed. The UN’s own staff were forced out of the area when their operational hub was shelled.
Of these crimes, the Sri Lankan Government first claimed falsely that rebel forces rather than innocents were being shelled. It then preposterously alleged that photographic evidence, reinforced by eyewitness accounts, had been forged. It has since furiously objected to the publication of the UN report, which was completed last month but has only now been released.
There are lessons for outside actors. India supported the campaign against the Tigers and even invited Mr Rajapaksa to be guest of honour at the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in 2010. It had good reason to abhor the LTTE’s tactics, which included the murder of Rajiv Gandhi, the former Indian Prime Minister, in 1991. And it is justifiably anxious about the expansion of Chinese influence on the Sri Lankan Government. But India’s leaders cannot ignore war crimes committed by a neighbouring regime.
Mr Rajapaksa justifies his forces’ actions by claiming that they successfully ended a terrorist campaign. But this civil war will not truly have ended till Sri Lanka addresses the truth about its violation of the laws of war. These are grotesque crimes, and Sri Lanka’s Government and Armed Forces should be held accountable for them.