Sri Lanka Tamil killings 'ordered from the top'
Updated on 18 May 2010
Exclusive: a senior Sri Lankan army commander and frontline soldier tell Channel 4 News that point-blank executions of Tamils at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war were carried out under orders.
In August 2009 Channel 4 News obtained video evidence, later authenticated by the United Nations, purporting to show point-blank executions of Tamils by uniformed Sri Lankan soldiers.
Now a senior army commander and a frontline soldier have told Channel 4 News that such killings were indeed ordered from the top.
One frontline soldier said: "Yes, our commander ordered us to kill everyone. We killed everyone."
And a senior Sri Lankan army commander said: "Definitely, the order would have been to kill everybody and finish them off.
"I don't think we wanted to keep any hardcore elements, so they were done away with. It is clear that such orders were, in fact, received from the top."
Despite allegations of war crimes, Sri Lanka's government has managed to avoid an independent inquiry. But the evidence continues to mount.
'Body blows to humanitarian law'
So decisive was Sri Lanka's victory over the Tamil Tigers last year that other nations facing violent insurgencies are now citing the "Sri Lanka option" as a model for crushing rebellion, writes Channel 4 News foreign reporter Jonathan Miller.
International lawyers, human rights and conflict prevention groups are alarmed, accusing the Colombo government of riding roughshod over international law.
Last night Louise Arbour, a former chief prosecutor in international war crimes trials, told an audience at Chatham House – the foreign policy think tank – that "the [Sri Lankan] government's refusal to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants" and the "sheer magnitude of civilian death and suffering" dealt what she called "the most serious of body blows to international humanitarian law".
Now, the International Crisis Group, of which Ms Arbour is the president, has joined forces with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to demand an independent international investigation into what they brand "massive human rights violations" and "repeated violations of international law" – by both sides.
Channel 4 News reports on the end of Sri Lanka's civil war
- 12 May 2009: thousands flee Sri Lanka bombardment
- 25 Aug 2009: is this evidence of 'war crimes' in Sri Lanka?
- 26 Aug 2009: Sri Lanka calls 'war crimes' video a fake
- 01 Sep 2009: UN probing Sri Lanka 'executions'
- 11 Sep 2009: Sri Lanka steps up death video rebuttal
- 16 Sep 2009: Tamil medic describes camp conditions
- 07 Jan 2010: Sri Lanka video 'appears authentic'
- 27 Jan 2010: Sri Lanka's Rajapaska wins re-election
The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly rejected the charges of civilian deaths as grossly exaggerated and has denied that any of its security forces have committed war crimes or violated international humanitarian law.
Ms Arbour appeared live on Channel 4 News to outline options available to the international community to prevent the "Sri Lanka option" gaining currency. A new ICG report entitled War Crimes in Sri Lanka defines this option as "unrestrained military action, refusal to negotiate, disregard for humanitarian issues, keeping out international observers including press and humanitarian workers".
'War Crimes in Sri Lanka'
- Download the International Crisis Group report in full (.pdf)
Ms Arbour also responded to dramatic new evidence contained in a film broadcast by Channel 4 News. The fresh evidence, detailing extremely serious allegations of possible war crimes, has been gathered in an extended undercover investigation in Sri Lanka. Testimony from soldiers interviewed by Channel 4 News corroborates persistent allegations aired by this programme since the end of the war a year ago.
Chief among these: the accusation that Sri Lankan soldiers were responsible for extrajudicial executions - as graphically illustrated by the disturbing video we aired last August. The video – long dismissed as a fake by the government in Colombo – was authenticated by the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions in January this year.
The clamour from international rights groups for an impartial investigation into alleged atrocities contrasts sharply with the failure of the UN to demand accountability from the Sri Lankan government. Last year, the Sri Lankan president promised the UN Secretary General that he would look into the question of accountability.
On Monday President Mahinda Rajapaksa named an eight-member panel to glean lessons learned from the war. But members of the group say they have no legal power to investigate alleged abuses. "If this is 'it'," Louise Arbour said last night, "there's no reason to expect from the government's past record that it's got any intention to investigate or put in place an appropriate accountability mechanism."
The UN Human Rights Council seems to provide little hope of investigating war crimes, having congratulated the Sri Lankan government on its victory, within days of the war ending.
Channel 4 News blogs on events in Sri Lanka
- Blogs by Jon Snow, Jonathan Miller and Nick Paton Walsh
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council holds out no hope at all. The Sri Lankan issue has failed to force its way onto the UNSC agenda – and were it to do so, China and Russia would likely stand in the way of any unlikely referral to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
The secretary general has also so far failed to appoint international experts to investigate – as he's previously promised he might.
Amnesty and the ICG have taken the UN to task for its failure to act decisively to push for accountability. Crisis Group went so far as to recommend that the UN should open an inquiry into its own conduct in Sri Lanka. Last night Louise Arbour – herself a former UN human rights commissioner – talked of the UN's "silence – verging on complicity" with the Rajapaksa regime.
A statement from the Sri Lankan high commission
The High Commission of Sri Lanka in the United Kingdom totally deny the allegations made against the Government of Sri Lanka and its armed forces. As it has been repeatedly stressed and supported by evidence, Government’s security forces were engaged in a humanitarian operation with the objective of rescuing the civilians held as human shields by a terrorist outfit: the LTTE, which was banned in many countries including the UK. All internationally accepted standards and norms of such operations were followed in the prosecution of the humanitarian operation by the security forces which were under strict orders to follow a zero civilian casualty policy.
The government of Sri Lanka is now in the process of rebuilding and reconciliation. The President of Sri Lanka has established the "Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission" of eight eminent persons reflecting all ethnic groups in Sri Lanka to inquire and report institutional administrative and legislative measures which need to be taken in order to prevent any recurrence of such concerns in the future, and to promote further national unity and reconciliation among all communities.
This High Commission is not in a position to make comments on specific allegations said to have been made in the video without viewing it. Therefore, we appreciate it if you could forward the said video to the High Commission for viewing and for verifying its authenticity prior to the telecast.
High Commission of Sri Lanka
The United Kingdom
18 May 2010
In January 2009, as the final chapter opened in the 30-year-long Sri Lankan civil war, I was in Gaza, picking over the humanitarian disaster left after Israel's three-week war there. Between 1,200 and 1,400 civilians were killed during the aerial bombardments and subsequent ground offensive. In the final weeks of the Sri Lankan government offensive on the "no-fire zone", Ms Arbour believes a figure of 30,000 civilian deaths "is not implausible".
Within months of the Gaza conflict, the UN Human Rights Council had dispatched Judge Richard Goldstone to investigate possible war crimes. He produced a damning report.
There has been no investigation in Sri Lanka. Local journalists who've raised their heads above the parapet have been jailed or disappeared or killed. The UN has done nothing concrete in moving towards an impartial inquiry. There has been no Goldstone in Colombo. Even the UN rapporteur for extrajudicial executions has been denied a visa for the past four years.
You can kind of see why the "Sri Lankan Option" might just catch on.