9 Dec 2010

Sri Lanka: ‘We are investigating the war’

As calls for an international probe into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka increase, the Sri Lankan Government tells Channel 4 News its domestic inquiry must be allowed to “achieve its objectives”.

The Sri Lankan Government says its investigation into its civil war must be allowed to achieve its objectives.

Human rights charities have reacted strongly to a Channel 4 News investigation into the Sri Lanka ‘war crimes’ video evidence, which has managed to identify one of the victims for the first time as Tamil Tiger journalist, Isaipriya.

The investigation also shed new light on the possible date and location of the video, which shows apparent executions and was screened by Channel 4 News last week.

Top war crimes lawyer Julian Knowles told Channel 4 News the Sri Lanka video was “astonishing evidence” and the United Nations must act to set up an international investigation. The UN told said it is considering the evidence sent by Channel 4 News.

Today, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International backed the calls – but the Sri Lankan High Commission said its domestic inquiry should be allowed “to achieve its objectives”.

‘Horrific evidence’

Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, Brad Adams, said: “This horrific new evidence demonstrates graphically that the Sri Lankan army engaged in summary executions of prisoners during the final days of fighting in May 2009.

“The government’s failure to investigate these serious war crimes in the face of overwhelming evidence shows the need for an independent, international investigation.”

The Sri Lankan Government has maintained that the video – a longer version of one broadcast last year by Channel 4 News, and authenticated by the United Nations – is a fake.

Sri Lanka is ‘looking into matters relating to the conflict’

Last night, however, in response to the new evidence presented by Channel 4 News, the Sri Lankan High Commission said it looking into events that happened during the war, and stressed that its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was taken seriously by Sri Lankans.

In a statement, it said: “The High Commission of Sri Lanka wishes to reiterate that ‘Lt. Col. Issei Piriya’ was engaged in a hostile operation against the Sri Lanka Security Forces when she met her end.

“Sri Lanka has established the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission the mandate of which is to look into matters relating to the conflict from 2002 to 2009.

“The testimony being presented to the Commission by people from all walks of life, especially from the North and from the East is proof of their confidence, in the workings of the Commission.

“Therefore, it is important that we allow this domestic mechanism to achieve its objectives.”

Sri Lanka 'end battle' infographic


Channel 4 News established the identity of Isaipriya with the help of her friend and former colleague. Human Rights Watch has separately obtained a positive identification of Isaipriya from multiple sources, including family members.

Identifying Isaipriya helped Channel 4 News pin down the date the video may have been shot, as separate photographs which show Isaipriya’s body are date-stamped 18 May 2009.

See more photographs obtained by Channel 4 News of the 'end battle' in Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence also lists her death, and attributes it to 53 Division Troops, on its own website as taking place on 18 May 2009.

Sri Lanka ‘Lessons Learnt’ Commission

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission in Sri Lanka was established on 15 May 2010 with a mandate “to reflect on the conflict phase and the sufferings the country has gone through as a whole and learn from this recent history lessons that would ensure that there will be no recurrence of any internecine conflict in the future and assure an era of peace, harmony and prosperity for the people.”

Both sides in the conflict – the government and the Tamil Tigers – are accused of war crimes and human rights violations over the course of the war.

Sri Lanka Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission

The panel has visited different areas of the country as part of its evidence gathering process, and is headed by Chitta Ranjan de Silva, Sri Lanka’s former Attorney General.

It is looking specifically into events between 21 February 2002, when a ceasefire agreement was broken, and the end of the war on 19 May 2009. The entire conflict spans 26 years, but the final years and in particular the last few months are seen as particularly violent. The International Crisis Group’s Louise Arbour believes a figure of 30,000 civilian deaths “is not implausible” in the final few weeks of the Sri Lankan government offensive on the no-fire zone.

The final public sitting for the Commission appears to be next week, and a report is due by 15 May 2011.

Major concerns

However the international community has major concerns over the Commission.

Ms Arbour said: “”If this is ‘it’, 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.”

Sri Lanka Commission criticised

In a letter sent earlier this year, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group declined to appear before the Commission, saying: “The organizations consider that the Commission not only fails to meet basic international standards for independent and impartial inquiries, but it is proceeding against a backdrop of government failure to address impunity and continuing human rights abuses.

“In addition to these broader failings of the government, the organizations believe that the LLRC is deeply flawed in structure and practice.”

Karu Jayasuriya, the deputy leader of the Sri Lanka opposition party, said at the weekend that the country should consider investigating some of the allegations made internationally over “massive civilian casualties” in order to restore its good name.


The release of classified diplomatic US cables by WikiLeaks, in which a memo accused the Sri Lankan President of war crimes, also suggested that it did not take the Commission’s investigations seriously.

The US Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Patricia Butenis, writes in the communication that it is “unsurprising” that Sri Lanka’s government has not investigated the issue of war crimes accountability properly, noting “there are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power.”

The cable goes on to say: “In Sri Lanka, this is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapakse and his brothers and opposition candidate General Fonseka.”