A Second Chance to Confront War Crimes in Sri Lanka

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The world failed to stop the government's killing of thousands of civilians in the civil war that ended in 2009, but a new UN report could finally bring a reckoning

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In early 2009, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa faced an opportunity, and possibly a moral quandary. Since 1976, the country's Sinhalese majority had weathered a brutal campaign at the hands of one of the deadliest terrorist groups in modern history: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, an ethnic Tamil separatist group that occupied parts of the country's northeast. For the previous two years, Rajapaksa's government had stepped up its fight against the Tigers, using means that were effective as well as morally dubious. In 2007, the military waged a campaign in the country's northeast that was often restrained but also included, for example, extensively shelling the city of Vakarai, including its civilian hospital. Targeted killings became common: over sixty aid workers had been killed in Sri Lanka since 2007. In January 2009, masked gunmen murdered the editor of the Sunday Leader, a newspaper often critical of the government. But the Tigers were on the run, and months of shelling had confined them to the northern corner of the Vanni region. The endgame to the 26-year civil war came with civilians tightly clustered on a stretch of beach that the government had designated a "no fire zone." And although Rajapaksa seemed committed to exterminating the LTTE, it was not yet clear just how violent that endgame would be, according to Alan Keenan, the International Crisis Group's Sri Lanka. "No one was sure that the government was willing to use such brutal and indiscriminate fire power against areas so densely populated with civilians," he said.

Yet that is exactly what it did, according to a United Nations report released late Monday. By May 19th, the Tigers were defeated, and a panel of international legal experts appointed by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon catalogues the cost of the government's victory. "Between September 2008 and 19 May 2009, the Sri Lanka Army advanced its military campaign ... using large-scale and widespread shelling, causing large numbers of civilian deaths," the report states. The government shelled three "No Fire Zones ... where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate." It shelled a "United Nations hub," as well as food distribution lines set up by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was the only humanitarian organization the Sri Lankan government allowed in Vanni. "All hospitals in Vanni were hit by mortar and artillery," while the internally displaced were herded into squalid refugee camps.

This week's report offers a second chance for the UN to uphold its own vaunted standards of accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka

It was the horrifying conclusion of a campaign that, in retrospect, Sri Lankan leaders had seldom waged with transparency or international law in mind: as early as 2006, the government had devised "measures to control information about and access to the combat zones," and had been providing "deep penetration units" comprised of former LTTE militants with heavy weaponry. The panel found that "white vans were used to abduct and often disappear critics of the Government or those suspected of links with the LTTE, and, more generally, to instill fear in the population." Faced with the prospect of ending a three-decade long civil war, the Sri Lankan government decided to ignore international legal norms, and expelled or otherwise silenced the journalists or activists who could hold them to account. The report puts the number of civilian dead at between 7,000 and 40,000 -- a wide variance attributable to the Sri Lankan government's expulsion of NGOs, journalists, and international observers from Vanni in September of 2008.

The report is detailed and even-handed, and it discusses the LTTE's use of human shields and forced conscription. But it is only a first step towards establishing accountability in Sri Lanka. The panel was not a formal investigation: the Sri Lankan government prevented panel members from touring the former conflict zone or interviewing LTTE prisoners or military officials, and the expert panel's mandate was limited to advising the Secretary General on how to proceed with investigating any possible war crimes. Ban could now urge the United Nations Security Council to set up a more formal commission of inquiry -- which is unlikely, given China's close political and economic ties with Sri Lanka, as well as China and Russia's general wariness of international investigations into how governments treat their own citizens. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva could authorize its own report, as it did after the Israeli assault on Gaza in January 2009. But this is even less likely. In May of 2009, a few days after the end of major hostilities, the UNHRC approved a measure congratulating Sri Lanka on its defeat of the LTTE, and ignoring allegations of war crimes. "Sri Lanka is a long-time player in the Non Aligned Movement," explains Hillel Neuer, director of the Geneva-based organization UN Watch, "and supports all Arab and Islamic initiatives. So in turn they all shielded Sri Lanka."

Ban could also order an investigation on his own initiative, as he did in 2009 after the killing of protestors in Guinea, according to James Ross, the legal and policy director for Human Rights Watch. But Ban could also choose to do nothing -- a possibility that would be drearily consistent with the UN's moral and political equivocation both during and immediately after the Sri Lankan government's final push against the LTTE.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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