The US tries to shame Sri Lanka into accounting for atrocities during its civil war’s horrific final days
After numerous failed attempts at a reckoning over human rights atrocities during its bloody civil war, Sri Lanka faces a new bid by the United States to embarrass it into delivering belated justice to the victims.
On March 7, the US unveiled a draft resolution against Sri Lanka to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) calling on the government to “take concerted actions on the ground to foster national reconciliation and accountability,” following its 2009 defeat of rebel group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Surprisingly, the draft affirms the need to implement the recommendations of the government’s largely discredited Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), set up to probe human rights abuses during the conflict. It acknowledges, however, that the LLRC’s report does not do enough to address allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law.
As such, it appears unlikely that the resolution will oblige either the government or members of the LTTE to account for abuses of which both stand accused, especially in the final stages of the 26-year war.
Sri Lanka’s government is assiduously working diplomatic channels to make sure the US resolution is not adopted by the UNHRC when it discusses the document during its current session in Geneva on March 22. Colombo claims to have secured the support from China, Russia and Pakistan, as well as a handful of developing countries.
With the US unlikely to press the issue, even the resolution’s most ardent backers see it as more of a moral indictment than setting up a process for delivering justice.
The UN estimates that 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed during the war, half of those in its final months. When the government failed to keep a promise made in 2009 to investigate wartime abuses, UN General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon appointed an Advisory Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka Allegations to undertake the task.
The panel, comprising former Indonesian human rights commissioner Marzuki Darusman, South African human rights expert Yasmin Sooka and US lawyer Steven Ratner, began work in September 2010.
The report from its six-month investigation chronicles a litany of indiscriminate killing of innocents by both sides, and also criticises the UN for failing to speak out forcefully enough on civilian casualties.
It found “credible” evidence of serious violations of international humanitarian conventions by both government and LTTE forces, possibly amounting to war crimes.
The report noted that between September 2008 and May 2009, the army had shelled upon ‘No Fire Zones’ after telling civilians to gather there, while also bombing the UN hub, food distribution lines, and ships arriving to pick up non-combatants from beaches.
“The government systematically shelled hospitals on the frontlines,” the report observed. “The government also systematically deprived people in the conflict zone of humanitarian aid. […] tens of thousands lost their lives from January to May 2009, many of whom died anonymously in the carnage of the final few days.”
The LTTE was upbraided for using civilians as human shields, as well as shooting civilians point blank as they tried to escape the conflict zone. “It also fired artillery in proximity of large groups of internally displaced people [IDPs],” the report said.
The LLRC, Sri Lanka’s own attempts to catalogue the horrors over seven years of the civil war, was rejected by all several human rights groups as lacking independence. The UN expert panel found “the LLRC [to be] deeply flawed, and does not meet international standards for an effective accountability mechanism”.
Critics of the new US draft resolution, predominantly the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora and international rights groups, said the US-led resolution was tainted by association with the LLRC and does not fully address the grievances of the island’s Tamil ethnic minority.
The US, however, appears to have adopted a strategy of putting the issue back on the international agenda as a first step towards a more substantive accounting of the barbarism of the war’s final days.
Unlikely to win a battle at the 47-member UNHRC, analysts say Washington is instead trying to shame Colombo into action. Its decision to highlight sections of the LLRC report may demonstrate Washington’s determination to prevent Sri Lanka from summarily dismissing the entire resolution. AR