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Thursday, June 20, 2024

Time for a reality check on the Sri Lankan civil war

Emanuel Stoakes
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) are expected to consider a motion tabled by the United States over Sri Lankan accountability for war crimes later this month, nearly three years after the end of the island nation’s bloody civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a rebelsecessionist militia.

The government has been accused of multiple atrocities committed during its war effort in 2008 and 2009, including intentionally shelling thousands of civilians in a “no-fire zone” declared by the army, extra-judicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances and attacks on civilian infrastructure including hospitals.The estimates suggest that between thousands and tens and thousands were killed in the endgame of the fighting.

President MahindaRajapaksa’s administration had responded toa body of evidence that indicates the army of Sri Lanka, following orders from its civilian leadership, committed atrocities in this period by denying all, but of late has peregrinated toward greater openness. It hasmoved on from echoing the president’s claim that “not one civilian was shot dead” toward acceptance of the government-appointed “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” (LLRC)panel’s findings that large numbers were killed.

This may be a sign of some progress, but the conclusions of theinternal investigation- which unsurprisingly exonerates the government of responsibility for suchalleged abuses, citing “crossfire” and other factors- contraststarkly with the views of authoritative external assessments. The report of a United Nations panel last yearfound“credible allegations of serious violations committed by the Government, including killing of civilians through widespread shelling”, and by other means of violence.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, NaviPillay, stated after the report’s release that “addressing violations of international humanitarian or human rights law is not a matter of choice or policy; it is a duty under domestic and international law”-duty or not, Sri Lanka have blocked any international inquiries to date and will try to do so again later this month.

The UN’s findings, reinforced by reports from human rights groups such as Amnesty International and international media which have included video footage of executions are all of a piece, according to apologists. They posit a malicious anti-Sri Lankan campaignby LTTE sympathisers who have duped / bought off the western media (apparently I’m in on it too, according to my trolls) in order to damage the country and intimidate itsleadership.

Unfortunately, some of the rebuttals provided by officials to disputethe more compelling evidence have onlyfurther damaged the credibility ofthe government’s stance. After Channel Four broadcast an alleged “trophy video” of Sri Lankan forces executing unarmed men in 2009, a panel of domestic experts investigated the footage and declared that they had “scientifically” proven that it was a fake assembled most likely by pro-LTTE conspirators, and listed their objections.

In response, Philip Alston, Special Rappourteur for Summary, Arbitrary or Extra-judicial killings at the UNissued a point-by-point refutation of the Sri Lankan panel’s findings, drawn from the conclusion of world-leading experts in forensic pathology, forensic video analysis, and firearm evidence. Receiving the backing ofChristofHeyns, -Alston’s successor- also, the case for the authenticity of the video is now very compelling indeed.

On another occasion, PalithaKohona, a government representative, was caught out live on Al Jazeera, responding to satellite imagery of a civilian “safe zone”that depicted shell craters. He admitted that the government had fired on the area, but denied there were civilians targets. Al Jazeera broadcast footage from earlier that year of himself denying that there was any shelling in the area, because civilians were present, a claim augmented by a number of military officials who backed up Kohona.

It has been around a thousand days since the conclusion of the war. In that time the response of the government to allegations of abuses, up to and including the LLRC report has been unconvincing,redolent of political self-servicerather than an authentic attempt at truth andreconciliation. Even some of the most ardent patriots who instinctively rally toRajapaksamust be growing weary of reflexive cries of “lies and propaganda!”every time new allegations surface.Any panacea’s placebo comforts dim with overuse.

For this reason, among many others, Sri Lanka should allow for an independent inquiry into crimes that are alleged to have occurred during the endgame of the war- to decisively prove the inference of its representatives that there is nothing to hide.

Having said that, here’s a thought: if America can table such a motion and expect a response, why shouldn’t the armed forces of Tommy “we don’t do body counts” Franks, and all Bush’s men not expect the same over, say, certain events in Fallujah, Haditha and Abottabad?And doesn’t Sri Lanka’sfailure to self-examine convincinglyalso apply to Britain’s patheticHutton report on Iraq?

Sri Lanka must be held open to international scrutiny for its alleged war crimes- Britain and America too.

But don’t hold your breath.

The Indepenent


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