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Sri Lanka: government faces the spectre of war crimes accusations September 16, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , trackback

Jehan Perera

The issue of war crimes has been in the air since the final showdown between the government and LTTE commenced in 2006. There was early evidence that this was going to be a fight to the finish in which the civilian population would be implicated. The LTTE goaded the newly elected government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to war by repeatedly ambushing dozens of soldiers in the north of the country and claiming that it was not they, but the angry people of the north who were doing it. This was a most provocative action that dimmed the distinction between combatant and civilian. The seeds of the disaster to befall the civilian population were laid here.

The final phase of the war was the most brutal in Sri Lanka’s modern history. Unable to withstand the superior firepower of the Sri Lankan armed forces, the LTTE fell back deeper into its strongholds. But in their withdrawal they did an entirely unexpected thing with possibly no parallel anywhere else in the world. They took the entire civilian population with them on their retreat, and claimed that the people accompanying them did so of their own free will. This included civilians from other parts of the country who happened to be visiting their relatives in the LTTE-controlled areas at that time. A civilian population that exceeded 300,000 became hostage to the LTTE.

The dilemma to the advancing Sri Lankan military was how to get to the LTTE without harming the civilian population who were compelled to form a human shield around them. The LTTE for its part sought to provoke the Sri Lankan military to attack areas of civilian concentration by firing at them from within the civilian inhabited areas. Their hope was that the civilian casualties would bring moral and international pressure on the government to halt its military assault and give the LTTE another breather at the negotiating table.

In recent days there has been a renewed focus on what happened in those last days of war. A part of this interest has been sparked off by the video footage of an alleged extrajudicial killing of what appears to be prisoners in the war zone by Sri Lankan military personnel. The government has strongly denied these allegations and with the backing of expert opinion has described the video footage as a fabrication. In addition, the release of displaced persons from the welfare centres back to their homes in the north and east has given the international media access to those people. Their stories have sparked fresh interest in what happened during those last days.

The government is under a great deal of pressure on the issue of human rights violations and allegations of war crimes, such as firing into civilian inhabited areas. Several months ago it was able to fend off a bid by a section of the international community led by influential western countries to obtain a UN resolution to set up a special investigation into human rights violations in Sri Lanka. The government was able to successfully marshal the support of the majority of countries in the UN’s Human Rights Council to defeat the passage of that resolution.

However, the government has not been able to stop the efforts by individual countries and blocs of countries, such as the European Union, to press on with the theme of human rights violations and possible war crimes. Some of these international efforts can have serious consequences for the well being of the entire country. The likely withdrawal of the GSP+ concession by the European Union could deal a devastating blow to the country’s apparel industry in particular and to the export economy in general. This would jeopardise the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people.

Another source of threat to the government is the ongoing investigation by a committee appointed by the US Congress into allegations of serious human rights violations and war crimes in Sri Lanka. These investigations are only at a preliminary stage, but the report that is expected could become a launching pad for further investigations that are more detailed and specific. It is natural that government leaders would be extremely sensitive about the possibility of a US investigation into what transpired during the war. The separation of powers is so strong in the United States that those sections of the US government that supported Sri Lanka’s war effort may not be the ones to call the shots in the post-war situation.

The Sunday Island reported this past Sunday that senior Defence Ministry officials have expressed concern about my recent visit to the United States at the invitation of the US Institute of Peace, along with Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu. We were invited to speak on the issue of ‘Supporting Sustainable Peace and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka’. The key issues we were asked to address ourselves to were the underlying factors that led to the outbreak of war, attend to reconciliation amidst communities recovering from decades of civil war, and address post-war reconstruction, relief, and security needs. The purpose in going to the United States was this, and not to provide information on human rights violations or war crimes.

As a member of the National Peace Council, my primary mandate is to build bridges in the present and bring reconciliation in the future. It is not to break relationships and to inflict punishment for the past. From this perspective, my presentations in the United States revolved around the need for the US government and civil society to support the positive actions of the Sri Lankan government that were in accordance with international standards. I also made the point that, with the war ending less than four months earlier, the government was continuing to operate with a security focus, as evidenced by the security checkpoints that continue to dot the country, and pressure alone was unlikely to compel it to change.

There is indeed a way for the government to successfully cope with the looming crisis it faces. This is to step up its efforts to give justice to the Tamil people after the war. The government needs to moderate its security focus, and be more prepared to take political risks for peace and reconciliation through proposing a mutually acceptable political solution. The government’s decision to facilitate the release of those displaced persons who are currently in welfare camps to their relatives outside the camps is a positive step forward that needs to be supported. A government that brings peace, justice and reconciliation to its people will be defended by its people, including those who are workers for peace, justice and reconciliation.

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