16 Sep 2015

Sri Lanka: international judges ‘should examine war crimes’

A United Nations report finds evidence of abuses by both Sri Lankan government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels at the end of the country’s civil war, and calls for a special court to be set up there.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein

The report found that both sides “most likely” committed war crimes including mass killings of civilians. However it did not name any suspects, saying it was “a human rights investigation, not a criminal investigation.”

On Monday the Sri Lankan government said it would set up its own truth and reconciliation commission. But the UN report on Wednesday called for the country to establish a “hybrid special court” where a prosecution could bring the evidence before a panel of international judges, warning that the Sri Lankan criminal justice system was not up to the huge task of examining what had happened on its own.

In response the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry said the government would “ensure dialogue and wide consultations with all stakeholders.. in putting in place mechanisms and measures which will facilitate the right to know, the right to justice, reparations and guaranteeing non-recurrence with the aim of achieving reconciliation and durable peace.”

Over several years Channel 4 News has aired shocking footage of various alleged violations during the final stages of the war, which ended in 2009.

See more: Sri Lanka 'war crimes': the evidence 

In June 2011 a Channel 4 feature, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, was screened for the UN Human Rights Council. The film showed disturbing footage of the alleged massacre of prisoners, the targeted shelling of hospitals and the bodies of female Tamil fighters who had allegedly been sexually assaulted.

This evidence was submitted to the UN investigation.

‘Grave violations’

In its report published on Wednesday the UN found “patterns of grave violations” between 2002 and 2011, and said government security forces were implicated in “unlawful killings carried out in a widespread manner against civilians” including politicians, aid workers and journalists.

It called on the Sri Lankan government to remove from office any military or security force personnel or any other official “where there are reasonable grounds to believe that they were involved in human rights violations” during the 26-year war.

According to a UN report in 2011, up to 40,000 Tamils died during the final offensive ordered by Mahinda Rajapaksa who was then president.

The UN has said that most of those civilians died in government shelling of ever-diminishing “No Fire Zones” – though the Tamil Tigers are also alleged to have committed grave abuses including suicide bombings and the use of human shields.

New political context

In January 2015 a dramatic election victory by Maithripala Sirisena brought to an end the presidency of Mr Rajapaksa, who had been in office for almost a decade.

In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein said: “This report is being presented in a new political context in Sri Lanka, which offers ground for hope, it is crucial that this historic opportunity for truly fundamental change is not allowed to slip.”

However the UN report warned that bringing to an end “the impunity enjoyed by the security forces and associated paramilitary groups, as well as holding to account surviving members of the LTTE [Tamil Tiger rebels], will require political will and concerted efforts.”