Chapter 1: Delayed Account of a Reluctant Outrage
A 3-member Panel of Experts was appointed by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to advise him about human rights violations during the last phase of the civil war in Sri Lanka. The UN released the report of the panel on April 26, 2011 in New York.
Few amongst those outside the White House – and elsewhere in the U.S. – who were dancing, waving flags and chanting “U.S.A, U.S.A” at the news of Osama bin Laden’s elimination by U.S. Navy Seals in Pakistan would have known that two years ago, in 2009, people in Colombo and elsewhere in Sri Lanka were dancing in just the same manner, over the death of Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the founder of the dreaded Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE or the Tamil Tigers).
In fact, it can be safely said that the crowd cheering Osama’s elimination would have been astonished beyond belief to learn that it wasn’t Osama, but Prabhakaran who had headed the only terrorist group in the world which boasted of an all-round military force – Tigers (infantry), Sea Tigers (sea wing) and Air Tigers (Air Wing)! The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in its January 10, 2008 report, had said that “LTTE is one of the most dangerous and deadly extremist outfits in the world and the world should be concerned about the outfit as they had ‘inspired’ networks worldwide, including the al-Qaeda in Iraq”.
And yet, again, how many on the streets of the U.S., the overstated leader of war on terror, would have heard of Prabhakaran?
But then, those everyday citizens can barely be blamed for the ignorance, when even their media and, more damningly, government had continually feigned ignorance of the steps leading to the killing of Prabhakaran, during which period, as per the recent UN report (see the bottom of the article), “tens of thousands lost their lives from January to May 2009, many of whom died anonymously in the carnage of the final few days.”
While publicly proclaiming innocence during the final days of the bloody conflict, the U.S. had absolutely no doubt about the orchestrators of, what has now come to be known as, the Lankan war crimes. As per a leaked U.S. Cable (via WikiLeaks) Ambassador Patricia Butenis had observed at the time of the conflict:
“… 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 (the Sri Lankan Army Chief of the time).”
But it would be grossly unfair to aim the gun only at the U.S. The so-called international co-chairs of the Sri Lankan peace process— the U.S., the EU, Japan and Norway – largely remained silent even as more than 300,000 Tamil civilians were trapped and systematically slaughtered by both the Lankans and LTTE. Further, a UN Security Council Presidential statement, at the peak of the fighting, had failed to even mention anything about war crimes committed by the Rajapakse government, while being quick to demand immediate surrender by LTTE.
As the global community showed remarkable impotence during the final months of the Lankan war, the Rajapakse government was quick to break its pledge of stopping the use of heavy weapons and went ahead to use cluster bombs, tanks, heavy artillery and also air power across the LTTE stronghold, caring precious little for the presence of civilians or targets such as hospitals.
There were clear tell-tale signs of an ongoing and impending genocide. In an interview with Stewart Bell of the National Post newspaper of Canada, published on 23rd September 2008, the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, General Sarath Fonseka had said:
“I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese … but there are minority communities and we treat them like our people … They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue thing”
Similarly, an editorial in the right-wing Island, around the same time, made a mockery of all things human by making a rhetorical statement: “Who doesn’t know that war is synonymous with suffering?”
Alas, even as civilians were dying in hundreds every day, the world was busy weighing the many business and geo-political vantage avenues that Sri Lanka presents. The island nation’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean has long made it the epicenter of global one-upmanship. Of late, however, India’s reluctance to play any part in the Lankan conflict and USA’s fixation with the middle-east and home economy, inspite of perennial concern about China’s growing influence in the region, allowed Beijing to emerge as Sri Lanka’s largest donor and an unconditional supporter of the Rajapakse government’s war against LTTE. Chinese Jian-7 fighter jets, antiaircraft guns, JY-11 3D air surveillance radars and other supplied weapons are said to have played a pivotal role in the Sri Lankan military’s final success against LTTE.
Pakistan, Beijing’s friend on account of shared animosity with India, too walked along the dragon on its relations with Sri Lanka and raised its annual military assistance to Sri Lanka to nearly USD 100 million, while simultaneously supplying Chinese-origin small arms and training Sri Lankan air force personnel in precision guided attacks.
In return, Colombo gave the green light to Beijing for construction of a major port in the southern town of Hambantota. It fitted extremely well into China’s long-term naval strategy of defending its trade routes; and gave sleepless nights to India, which regards Sri Lanka as part of its regional sphere of influence.
While the game of larger inaction and specific collusion (by China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) was being played out, the United Nations political organs and bodies, by UN’s own admission, “failed to take actions that might have protected civilians“.
In other words, not one government or agency, which had the power to make a difference, took any step to stop the grave human tragedy from occurring – till the bloody war was eventually won in a brutal fashion by the Sri Lankan army.
Quite like Osama, Prabhakaran was an evil man and had killed and maimed thousands of people – and hence deserved ‘justice’ at the hands of ‘law’. But the people who did not deserve to be a party to the ‘justice’ were thousands of Tamil civilians, who got caught between the Sri Lankan army and LTTE – and got killed at both ends. In 2009, as per international estimates, about 1200 non-combatants (Tamils) were getting killed each month!
Further, as is now known:
Between September 2008 and 19 May 2009, the Sri Lanka Army advanced its military campaign into the Vanni using large-scale and widespread shelling in three consecutive No Fire Zones, where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate, even after indicating that it would cease the use of heavy weapons. It shelled the United Nations hub, food distribution lines and near the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) ships that were coming to pick up the wounded and their relatives from the beaches.
The Government systematically shelled hospitals on the frontlines. All hospitals in the Vanni were hit by mortars and artillery; some of them were hit repeatedly, despite the fact that their locations were well-known to the Government. The Government also systematically deprived people in the conflict zone of humanitarian aid, in the form of food and medical supplies, particularly surgical supplies, adding to their suffering.
It has to be admitted – and without an iota of reluctance – that the aforementioned is just one side of the story; it does not include the unmentionable violent act by the Tamil Tigers – including confinement and point-blank shooting by LTTE of the very people that the terrorist group championed fighting for, Sri Lankan Tamils. (More of LTTE violence in the next part)
And yet, even as heinous war crimes continued from both sides, a divided Security Council was initially said to have been reluctant to address Sri Lanka’s war, much less call for an inquiry!
But as it happens in today’s world, the word not only does go out eventually, it gets really loud. Soon, the entire world was getting to know the inhuman story of human cruelty via news stories such as this one on Al Jazeera:
As more evidence of serious human rights abuses and massive civilian casualties in the five-month offensive (which ended the war) kept mounting by the minute, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, under tremendous pressure from Human Rights activists and many government quarters, appointed an ‘Advisory Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka Allegations’ in 2010.
Comprising Marzuki Darusman, a former Indonesian attorney general, Yasmin Sooka, a South African human rights expert, and Steven Ratner, a US lawyer, the panel began its work in September 2010.
Over the next 6 months, the panel’s primary task was to stay clear of partisan sources (like TamilNet.com and some Sri Lankan government sources) of information on incidents & casualties. An internal group, named ‘Crisis Operations Group’ took figures from the Regional Director of Health Services as the baseline. Simultaneously, information from National Staff of the United Nations and NGOs inside Vanni, the ICRC, and other sources were used to cross-check and verify the baseline.
At the end of the process, the panel submitted its findings to UN Secretary General on April 12, 2011 in New York. A copy of the report (see the bottom of the article) was made available ‘in its entirety’ to the government of Sri Lanka on 12 April; but the government refused to respond to the UN offer of publishing the Sri Lankan response to the panel’s finding alongside the report (see the bottom of the article).
In its report (see the bottom of the article), the panel has come down heavily not just on both the Sri Lankan government and LTTE, but also on the role of U.N. itself, for failing to speak out forcefully enough on civilian casualties during the fighting.
The Panel, the report (see the bottom of the article) says, found ‘credible allegations’, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law were committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Here are the respective indictments of the two warring sides in the report (see the bottom of the article):
Credible allegations that comprise five core categories of potential serious violations committed by the Government of Sri Lanka:
(i) Killing of civilians through widespread shelling;
(ii) Shelling of hospitals and humanitarian objects;
(iii) Denial of humanitarian assistance;
(iv) Human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors of the conflict, including both IDPs and suspected LTTE cadre; and
(v) Human rights violations outside the conflict zone, including against the media and other critics of the Government.
Credible allegations against the LTTE associated with the final stages of the war reveal six core categories of potential serious violations:
(i) Using civilians as a human buffer;
(ii) Killing civilians attempting to flee LTTE control;
(iii) Using military equipment in the proximity of civilians;
(iv) Forced recruitment of children;
(v) Forced labour; and
(vi) Killing of civilians through suicide attacks.
Following up on the ‘charge-sheet’, the panel also made some pointed recommendations to all the concerned parties – principal aspects of which include investigations on the alleged war crimes by an international panel, short and long term accountability measures by the Sri Lankan government and even a comprehensive review of the actions (or the lack of it) of the U.N. during the war and the aftermath.
Significantly, the panel also recommends reconsideration of the Human Rights Council’s May 2009 Special Session Resolution (A/HRC/S-11/l.1/Rev.2) that congratulated Sri Lanka for ending the war, rather than calling for an investigation into mass civilian casualties.
While the reaction from Sri Lanka (which we would discuss in depth in the next part of this series), expectedly, was swift and resounding in its rejection of the report (see the bottom of the article) as being ‘biased and flawed’, the UN has – so far – sounded extremely guarded and, I may add, a little helpless on the subject.
In a rather defensive tone, the UN General Secretary said that the report (see the bottom of the article) was released ‘as a matter of transparency & accountability’ and that he hoped that ‘UN Member States would study it closely’ – thereby indirectly stating his inability to move any further on the case.
But, Human Rights Watch has protested Ban Ki Moon’s view that he lacks authority to personally order an international probe into possible war crimes in Sri Lanka, as recommended by the panel. It is joined by international human rights groups in urging further investigation of the report (see the bottom of the article).
The stark truth, however, is that while the Security Council may have come together to ratify NATO intervention in Libya, members like Russia and China are clearly against Ban Ki Moon getting any further inside Sri Lanka.
What does not help the matters for him is the growing chorus of shrill voices emerging from various quarters, after the tabling of the report (see the bottom of the article).
Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she hoped that the “disturbing new information (carried in the report) will shock the conscience of the international community into finally taking serious action”.
Equally scathing, in a press release, was Amnesty International. “Almost two years after the end of the conflict, this UN report finally exposes the Sri Lankan government’s whitewash in its efforts to deny justice to the war’s victims,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director.
Similarly, Gordon Weiss, a former UN official in Sri Lanka who has written a book on the conflict, said the report (see the bottom of the article) has exposed a “frontal assault on international law that demanded accountability”. Equating it with the globally-condemned violations in the Bosnian war, he asserted that “the UN didn’t do enough” and that the report (see the bottom of the article) makes the world body culpable of “failing to use the available casualty figures”.
Expressing support to the report (see the bottom of the article) of the Panel of Experts, the European Union urged the Sri Lankan government to “recognise the constructive objectives of the report”, and encouraged it to “engage with the UNSG on its contents”.
Unusually usurping the acid tongue from USA, UK Foreign Office welcomed the Panel report and, amidst other things, made the following strong observation:
The serious nature of the allegations in the report underline that these allegations, and the issue of accountability for them, must be resolved before a lasting reconciliation can be achieved in Sri Lanka.
The U.S., on the other hand, was more measured in its reaction. In her statement, Susan Rice, the US Permanent Representative to the UN said:
The report highlights the need for an independent and full accounting of the facts in order to ensure that allegations of abuse are addressed and impunity for human rights violations is avoided. We strongly support the Secretary General’s call for the Sri Lankan authorities to respond constructively to the report and underscore our belief that accountability and reconciliation are inextricably linked.
Amidst tongue-lashing from all quarters, Sri Lanka got the lone international voice of comfort from its partner in the dark alley, China. The official Chinese release on the subject tersely mentioned:
China believes that the Government and people of Sri Lanka are capable of handling all relevant issues. We hope the international community can support and coordinate the endeavor of the Sri Lankan Government.
India, which is having to walk a tightrope over the issue because of its massive stake in the rehabilitation of Tamils in Sri Lanka on one hand, and strategic compulsions arising out of China’s dogged support to Colombo on the other, has merely said that it is “willing to engage Sri Lanka on the contents of the UN report”. The docile reaction may be unsurprising, but it still remains utterly disappointing – for, if there is any country that can make a difference in Sri Lanka, it remains India.
With human rights groups and some governments on one side, UNSC members like China and Russia on the other and absolute reluctance on part of the country that has the biggest stake in Sri Lanka and can play a direct role in any solution – India, it would be interesting to see how the UN Secretary General manages to walk the tightrope.
Experts suggest that one option for Ban Ki Moon would be to set up a commission of inquiry either at the International Criminal Court or another judicial body – as a possible first step toward a war-crimes prosecution. But with China definite to exercise its veto power on the matter, this may not work. All the same, other experts say that may other mechanisms too are at Ban’s disposal, if so wishes to explore.
Alan Kennan, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group based in London argues, “We think that the secretary-general has the authority under the UN charter to initiate a fact-finding body that could deepen the panel’s work”
Whatever may be the outcome, the following quote by Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Sri Lankan Rights Campaigner, seems to sum up the whole scenario:
“The real issue here seems to be whether the two sides became the mirror image of each other, in trying to win a war. And that whether the end justified the means”
Read the complete 214-page report here:
Advisory Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka Allegations
// End of Chapter 1 //
Chapter 2 – Post UN Report on War, It’s War on the Report in Sri Lanka