Sri Lanka’s victory over the Tamil Tigers was so decisive that other nations are now citing the “Sri Lanka option” as a model for crushing rebellion, writes Foreign Correspondent Jonathan Miller.
International lawyers, human rights and conflict prevention groups are alarmed, accusing the Colombo government of riding roughshod over international law.
In May 2010, 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.
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 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.
Three months after Sri Lanka declared victory over the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, Channel 4 News broadcast footage apparently showing government troops summarily executing Tamils during the final push of the war.
Sri Lankan officials branded the video as a fake, but a UN investigation said it "appears authentic".
The video was obtained by the group Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka and Channel 4 News broadcast it on 25 August 2009. It provoked an angry reaction, with Sri Lankan army spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara immediately saying the footage was a fabrication designed to discredit security forces.
However, a report commissioned by the UN's Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Philip Alston examined the video frame-by-frame and a group of experts said they could find no evidence that the video was a fake.
Jonathan Miller’s report contains some images that viewers may find disturbing.
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.
“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.” Louise Arbour
President Mahinda Rajapaksa named an eight-member panel to glean lessons learned from the war in May 2010. But members of the group say they have no legal power to investigate alleged abuses.
“If this is ‘it’,” Louise Arbour said, “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.
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. Louise Arbour – herself a former UN human rights commissioner – talked of the UN’s “silence – verging on complicity” with the Rajapaksa regime.
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”.
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.
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.
Sexual abuse in refugee camps
Channel 4 News's report on sexual abuse and disappearances from the Tamil refugee camp in the Sri Lankan city of Vavuniya led to Asia Correspondent Nick Paton Walsh being expelled from the country.