“The first step is to penetrate the clouds of deceit and distortion and learn the truth about the world, then to organise and act to change it. That’s never been impossible and never been easy” – Noam Chomsky
On April 25th the United Nations officially released a report of the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka. The report alleged that both the Sri Lankan government and LTTE were responsible for possible violation of humanitarian and human right law. The ethnic conflict gives context to the UN’s report that the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) slaughtered Tamils during the last phase of the war.
A draft of the report was given to the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) for their review and response prior to publication. It was intended to incorporate their response in the final document. The government obviously rattled by the findings in the report, leaked it to their slavish press and sought to mobilise the Sinhala masses against the UN and the West. The government used all tactics in their armoury to prevent its publication, and using the period before publication to hurl abuses at everyone connected with the report. The press instead of investigating the mass of information in the report and examining its recommendations – as it is their function in a democracy – set about ridiculing and vilifying the panel members for its contents. Sri Lankan media have been especially frantic in their attacks on UNSG Ban ki Moon for commissioning the report. They have dismissed the document as a “fabrication,” and contend that the UN researchers that documented the massacres of innocent Tamil victims of SLA are pursuing a vendetta against the Sri Lankan State.
Finally, GOSL blasted the report as “flawed, offensive and ridiculous” and decided not to issue a response and seek other ways of preventing any follow up action by the UN. Rejecting the report, the country’s Media Minister said, “The report is a fraud and biased and we reject it… We are not panicked, and even we made our protest when they appointed the panel with“.
GOSL hoped that mounting such a campaign would at best dissuade the publication of the report or at worst force a review and weaken its contents. That would not be surprising, since UN employees have been reporting the massacres to their bosses for years, with no effect. But surprisingly (compared to previous UN vacillation over Rwanda and Bosnia), in this instant, the UNSG stood his ground and published the report without mollifying Rajapakse’s government. Its most controversial parts are accusations against the government , which according to it “Most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling,” and it believed that “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 War and Crimes against humanity
It is impossible to understand the current situation in Sri Lanka, or to make a contribution to resolving some of the acute problems, without recognising the reality of the many human right violations over the past twenty five years committed by all parties, the huge crime that profoundly colours every individual and every event in the island. Yet this is not what the report has attempted to do. It was addressing only the final phase of the war. It has found credible information that war crimes might have been committed and they need investigating by an Independent authority. This has pushed the panel report in the eyes of Sri Lankan Government as an extremely partial, even partisan role and perceive it as highly political.
Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the ICC, entitled =Crimes against Humanity‘, reads:
1. For the purpose of this Statute, “Crime against Humanity” means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:
(e) Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;
(g) Rape, enforced prostitution or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity;
(h) Persecution against any identifiable group or collectively on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;
(i) Enforced disappearance of person
2. For the purpose of paragraph 1:
(a) ‘Attack directed against any civilian population’ means a course of conduct involving the multiple commission of acts referred to in paragraph 1 against any civilian population, pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack;
(b) ‘Extermination’ includes the intentional infliction of conditions of life, inter alia the deprivation of access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population;
(d) ‘Deportation or forcible transfer of population’ means forced displacement of the persons concerned by expulsion or other coercive acts from the area in which they are lawfully present, without grounds permitted under international law;
(e) ‘Torture’ means the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, upon a person in the custody or under the control of the accused; except that torture shall not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to, lawful sanctions;
(g) ‘Persecution’ means the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity;
(i) ‘Enforced disappearance of persons’ means the arrest, detention or abduction of persons by, or with the authorization, support or acquiescence of, a State or a political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge that deprivation of freedom or to give information on the fate or whereabouts of those persons, with the intention of removing them from the protection of the law for a prolonged period of time.
In the last few months of this conflict there have been widespread allegations of massive human rights and international humanitarian law violations. Eye witnesses to these allegations are the surviving 300,000 victims of Mullivaikal and personnel belonging to International NGO‘s present in the conflict zone. The report states “a number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years after the end of the war, there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage”. It is estimated almost 300,000 reported as being interned in camps. The SLA and the LTTE attacked each other without sparing the civilians caught in the middle, which not only constitutes a violation of customary international law, but also amounts to criminal conduct by them.
Many attacks on civilians fall into a pattern. Hospitals were continuously shelled in the conflict zone. Independent agencies such as Human Rights Watch lists thirty hospitals as being shelled during a period of less than four months. Other shelling hit government declared no-fire-zones, where women, children and the elderly gathered for shelter. On the 9th and 10th of May 2009, a small beach area near Mullaitivu, a declared no-fire-zone, was attacked mercilessly by the SLA while 50,000 residents gathered, leaving hundreds of civilians dead in a single attack. Prisoners, surrendered as well as captured persons were summarily executed (Shown on Channel 4 in UK) or simply disappeared.
The populations of entire villages were forced to move to camps with harshly restricted exit, devastating conditions and no access for international observers. Civilians in such camps are subjected to: sexual violence, mistreatment as well as refusal of humanitarian aid, food, water, means of sanitation and medical supplies. At Manik Farm, the shortage of water and sanitation were especially severe causing the deaths of many weak and elderly people.
The panel also criticises the UN in failing to report and “to take actions that might have protected civilians.” The panel says casualty figures collected by the UN should have been made public at the time.
Releasing casualty figures isn’t enough. Why was the world happy to bury this horror in silence, and ignore the pleas of Tamils everywhere to intervene? In this day and age, when satellite information is so readily available at the press of a button, it beggars belief that the world did not see such an atrocity being taking place under its very eyes. Is it not shocking that such a horrible crime of such magnitude was allowed to be perpetrated by a bunch of mendacious men who almost got away by clearing the debris and burying the evidence?
The Rajapakse regime confused the international community about the nature of the war in Sri Lanka. GOSL successfully persuaded the world that the intractable ethnic war as a war against terrorism in an international political climate favourable to it. No doubt the LTTE made its contribution to fit in with this vision. In their effort, to solve this ethnic problem, GOSL drove out all independent international NGO’s from the war zone and perpetrated the massive atrocities against a trapped Tamil population, pummelling it with multi barrel rocket launchers in a war without witness. When the Tamil Diaspora was telling the world, that there were at least 300,000 in the war zone, GOSL called it a lie. The GOSL convinced the world that there were 70,000 in the war zone. When a massive population of men women and children were suffering and struggling for survival, all food rations and medications were limited to these numbers by this regime who should have known the facts. At the end of the war survivors numbered more than 300,000. To this day there are no apologies to the survivors or to the rest of the world from this regime for getting these numbers so wrong.
Again, take the matter of the solution to the National Question. The regime promised the world that they are addressing the underlying problem causing strife in the island through an All Party Representative Committee appointed in 2006 under the Chairmanship of Prof. Vithane. The distinguished panel was mandated by the President to prepare a set of proposals that would form the basis for a solution to the National Question. President Rajapakse during the course of the war, assured the world community and especially the Indian government during their many interactions that he was awaiting the recommendation of the APRC to finalise his course of action. After the end of the war, a triumphalist Rajapakse abandoned the whole APRC process and consigned the monumental efforts of the panel to the dustbin of history. The international community was once again manipulated and deceived.
The political somersaults the current Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka is a man of superb academic credentials and, is the face of the Sri Lankan government to the international world. He was the leader of the Sri Lankan delegation to the Norwegian peace process encouraging the LTTE to join him to explore jointly a solution to the National Question. The world is familiar with the modalities of this process. He has now cynically abandoned all his previous convictions to serve his time as an apologist for this regime. How can his judgement be trusted?
It was surprising that the Rajapakse regime who convinced the world that nothing untoward has occurred during the war and that they scrupulously observed all the laws of war. It managed to get the United Nations Human Rights Council to pass a deeply flawed resolution on 27 May 2009, on Sri Lanka that ignored calls for an international investigation into alleged abuses during recent fighting and other pressing human rights concerns. Further, GOSL assured that august assembly during its deliberations, that it does not regard a military solution as a final solution, and further underlined its commitment to a political solution with implementation of the thirteenth amendment to bring about lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. India believing these promises supported the resolution. We now know how Sri Lanka misled the world. This resolution was a political act and not a worthy epitaph for the defenceless men, women and children who died in the war.
“The Human Rights Council did not even express its concern for the hundreds of thousands of people facing indefinite detention in government camps,” said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The council ignored urgent needs and wasted an important chance to promote human rights.”
“It is deeply disappointing that a majority of the Human Rights Council decided to focus on praising a government whose forces have been responsible for the repeated indiscriminate shelling of civilians,” said de Rivero. “These states blocked a message to the government that it needs to hear, to ensure access to displaced civilians and uphold human rights standards. They undermined the very purpose of the council.”
During the special session, UN High commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay called for an independent international investigation into violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the recent fighting, including those specifically responsible. UN estimates say that more than 7,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting in Sri Lanka since late January 2009.
“The images of terrified and emaciated women, men, and children fleeing the battle zone ought to be etched in our collective memory,” Pillay said. “They must spur us into action.”
A majority of council members – including China, Pakistan, India and Uruguay – ignored the call for accountability and justice for victims by the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay. Instead, the resolution adopted reaffirms the principle of non-interference in the domestic jurisdiction of states, a step backward for the Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch said.
This resolution is a travesty of the truth. Sri Lanka, hailed it as vindication for the block of third world countries and for standing up for their cultural values against the Western block. What values; what culture? The panel of Experts, have now requested the Human Rights Council to review this special session resolution of May 2009 in the light of its report.
We cannot justify to the world that we can put behind this moment in history and move on. The victims of this conflict need closure, and this is not the way to bring it about. The dead have perished and more than 300,00 survivors are still waiting to tell their story. The full story is not yet told.
Indeed the systematic abuses by Sri Lankan government forces are among the most serious conduct imaginable. There abuse of human rights such as torture and extrajudicial killings is so widespread that Governments of the world owe it to Sri Lankan human rights victims – and to victims of human rights abuses around the world not to believe again the assurances of the Sri Lankan government and to ensure that the recommendations of the Expert panel is fully implemented.
Will India support the implementation of this report of the Expert panel in world councils, and answer the cries of the victims consistent with the noble spirit of the founding fathers of modern India or will it again trust the deceitful Rajapakse government to spin a web of deception on a trusting world. We are waiting.
(The views expressed by the author are his own. He can be reached at [email protected])