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Sri Lanka: Call for War Crimes Investigation

(Feb. 27, 2014) On February 24, 2014, Navanetham Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), called for an inquiry into the possibility that the two sides in Sri Lanka’s civil war both committed war crimes. The war, which went on for 25 years, ended in May 2009. (Stephen Adelgren, UN Rights Chief Calls for International Inquiry into Sri Lanka War Crimes, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (Feb. 25, 2014); PROMOTING RECONCILIATION AND ACCOUNTABILITY IN SRI LANKA (hereinafter UN Report), A/HRC/25/23 (Feb. 24, 2014), Office of the UNHCHR website [click on link for report].)

Pillay stated that Sri Lanka’s government had failed to mount its own, credible investigation, and thus she recommended an “independent, international inquiry mechanism, which would contribute to establishing the truth where domestic inquiry mechanisms have failed.” (Stephanie Nebehay, U.N. Rights Boss Seeks International Probe into Sri Lanka War Crimes, REUTERS (Feb. 25, 2014).) Pillay issued a report on Sri Lanka in advance of planned debate on the issue of an investigation, scheduled to be held by the U.N. Human Rights Council in March. (Id.)

The Allegations

Pillay’s report drew attention to the thousands of civilians killed or injured during the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist group based in the northern part of the country. She expressed concern that little had been done to establish accountability for incidents such as the killing of five students on a beach in January 2006 or the deaths of seven aid workers later that year, as well as abuses that occurred after the formal end of the fighting. Those later crimes included violent incidents and sexual harassment in areas with a large military presence. (Id.)

While acknowledging that attempts had been made to achieve justice within the country, Pillay argued that the initiatives have not been effective and have not inspired confidence in victims or witnesses, stating:

The military courts of inquiry lack independence and transparency and are limited in scope. Past commissions of inquiry have not always completed their mandate, their reports have not been published and their recommendations have not been implemented or followed by prosecutions. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, although handling many routine cases, has a poor record in responding credibly to serious violations committed by the military and security forces. (UN Report, ¶ 67).

Not all of the abuses were committed by the government troops. Pillay stated that legal proceedings have also not been undertaken for the war crimes committed by the LTTE. (Nebehay, supra.) The Sri Lankan political opposition has also alleged that the government shelled civilian areas and blocked supplies of food and medicine entering the war zone; the LTTE forces are accused of using civilians as human shields, using child soldiers, and killing civilians trying to escape. (Peter Snyder, Sri Lanka Opposition Party Demands Domestic War Crimes Investigation, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (Feb. 13, 2014).)

In addition to the war crimes, the UNHCHR has raised the issue of recent attacks on activists, lawyers, and journalists, plus incidents targeting members of different religious groups. In 2013 alone, Pillay reports, there were 280 incidents of threats and violence targeting Muslims and 103 against Christians in Sri Lanka. (Id.)

The Sri Lankan Government’s Response

The Sri Lankan government rejected the call for an international inquiry into alleged war crimes. Reportedly, the government stated that the “conclusions and recommendations contained in her [Pillay’s] report reflect bias and are tantamount to unwanted interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.” (Sri Lanka Slams UN Commission’s Human Rights Report Ahead of Resolution, INDIA.COM (Feb. 25, 2014).) In addition to suggesting a bias in the UNHCHR report, the government has denied that war crimes were committed and has worked to obtain support to defeat the proposal for an international investigation. The United States has been supporting a planned resolution to be considered by the United Nations Human Rights Council, the third of its kind involving Sri Lanka, that would call for such an investigation. (Id.)

In addition, Sri Lanka denied that attacks on minority religious groups had been widespread, stating that there had only been scattered incidents of violence, victimizing members of all four major religions. (Snyder, supra.) The four major religions in Sri Lanka are Buddhism, the official religion of the country, representing nearly 70% of the population; Islam, with about 7.6%; Hinduism, with 7.1%; and Christianity, with 6.2%. (Central Intelligence Agency, Sri Lanka, THE WORLD FACTBOOK (last visited Feb. 26, 2014) [select country from drop-down menu].)

Other Responses

Not everyone in Sri Lanka opposes some form of inquiry into war crimes. The United National Party, the main opposition party, has demanded that war crimes committed by both sides in the long conflict be investigated within the country. (Adelgren, supra.)

Nongovernmental organizations outside of Sri Lanka have also reported on the alleged war crimes. The Australian organization Public Interest Advocacy Centre noted that crimes including bombing of non-military targets, extrajudicial executions, blocking of humanitarian aid, and sexual violence had been committed. (Id.; International Crimes Evidence Project, ISLAND OF IMPUNITY? INVESTIGATION INTO INTERNATIONAL CRIMES IN THE FINAL STAGES OF THE SRI LANKAN CIVIL WAR (Feb. 1, 2014), Public Interest Advocacy Centre website [click on link to see full report].)

Amnesty International (AI) also spoke out on the issue, supporting the United Nations plan to have an independent investigation. Polly Truscott, the Deputy Asia-Pacific Director for AI, stated that it is “utterly shameful that five years after Sri Lanka’s armed conflict ended, the victims and family members have yet to see justice. Navi Pillay’s latest report is another urgent and poignant reminder that an international investigation into alleged human rights violations and war crimes cannot wait.” (Sri Lanka: UN Report Must Be Call to Action on International War Crimes Investigation, AI website (Feb. 24, 2014).)