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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Sri Lanka Rights Record Under Spotlight

Tom Wright
Pressure on Sri Lanka to allow an independent investigation of war crimes committed by the government and the Tamil Tigers at the end of their 26-year war is mounting.
First, a United Nations-appointed panel found in a report released in April that both sides caused tens of thousands of civilian deaths during the closing months of the civil war in 2009. The report found the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa lacked the political will to mount a full investigation into war crimes and called instead for a U.N.-backed independent inquiry.

Now, Amnesty International, the human rights advocacy group, has penned a report out Wednesday that says Sri Lanka’s own investigations into the final stages of the war is deeply flawed.

Mr. Rajapaksa’s government is slated in November to release the findings of its inquiry, known as the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.

“The Sri Lankan government has, for almost two years, used the LLRC as its trump card in lobbying against an independent international investigation,” says Sam Zarifi, director for Amnesty International in the Asia-Pacific region. “Officials described it as a credible accountability mechanism, able to deliver justice and promote reconciliation. In reality it’s flawed at every level: in mandate, composition and practice.”

The civil war came to a climax in a battle over 13.5 square miles of territory in the northeast of Sri Lanka between January and May of 2009. More than 300,000 civilians were trapped in the fighting between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the formal name of the Tamil Tigers.

Amnesty says the commission, constituted by Mr. Rajapaksa in May 2010, has failed to carry out credible investigations into claims the government shelled civilian targets such as hospitals and schools. It also did not properly look into allegations the Tamil Tigers used civilians as shields, the report says.

The chairman of the commission instructed witnesses during collection of evidence to “forget the past” and instead focus on telling the government about any problems getting access to housing, medical care or education, according to Amnesty.

The Sri Lankan government denies carrying out atrocities. It organized anti-U.N. rallies in April to protest the release of the panel’s report. Mr. Rajapaksa is popular among Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese ethnic group for ending the quarter-century war against the Tamil Tigers.

But he has faced international criticism for mistreatment of Sri Lanka’s 4 million Tamil minority. Two years after the war ended, the Tamil majority areas in the north and east of the country remain militarized by the Sinhalese-dominated army.

Still, an international inquiry is unlikely. Sri Lanka is not a member of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, meaning allegations of war crimes are unlikely to be tried there.

Only the U.N. Security Council can order an ICC probe into a country that doesn’t belong to the court or fails to carry out its own credible probe, but it’s unlikely to do this in Sri Lanka’s case.

For now, India is playing a cautious role due to its own flawed history of involvement in Sri Lanka. In the 1980s, India saw itself as a protector of Tamil rights and helped train the Tamil Tigers. But it later sent peace-keeping troops to fight them and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by Tamil Tiger militants in 1991.

New Delhi did not comment on the U.N.-appointed panel report and has been an ineffectual voice in speaking up for Tamil rights. Some analysts say India is scared that by berating Colombo it might lose out to China’s growing influence in Sri Lanka.

India Real Time / The Wall Street journal


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