By B. Raman
My attention has been drawn to a disturbing documentary titled “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” produced by Mr. Jon Snow of the Channel4 TV channel of the UK.
The documentary highlights the results of a forensic investigation into the bloody culmination phase of the counter-insurgency operations of the Sri Lankan Security Forces against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in April-May, 2009. It alleges that the culmination phase, which physically wiped out the leadership of the LTTE for which no right-thinking person opposed to terrorism need shed tears, was also marked by executions, shelling of civilians and other atrocities carried out by the Security Forces. The documentary is available at http://bit.ly/mDpkez .
In the culmination phase, the Sri Lankan Security Forces did face a cruel dilemma because the ruthless leadership of the LTTE headed by Prabakaran was making a last-ditch effort to save itself from capture or killing by taking shelter in the midst of civilian refugees. It was not an opportunistic tactic in the face of the mounting pressure from the Security Forces. It was a consciously-planned tactic of Prabakaran to force the international community to intervene by creating a situation in which hundreds of civilians were used as cannon fodder in a futile attempt to save the LTTE leadership from extinction.
After the operation ended with the elimination of the LTTE leadership and the collapse of the LTTE as a terrorist organisation, there was a spate of allegations from well-reputed international human rights organisations, humanitarian workers, representatives of Western Governments and UN officials —many of whom often levelled the allegations independently of each other and not in a concerted campaign— that the Sri Lankan Security Forces could not escape their share of the blame for the large-scale violations of the human rights of the Sri Lankan Tamil civilians living in the operational area under the control of the LTTE.
Two kinds of violations were alleged. Firstly, that the leaders of the LTTE, including Prabakaran, wanted to surrender but were not given an opportunity to do so, but instead were physically eliminated. Secondly, that the Security Forces consciously used disproportionate force with light, medium and heavy weapons knowing fully well that such use could kill many civilians. Protecting the civilians caught was not on the agenda of either the LTTE or the Security Forces.
These allegations have been accompanied by demands for an independent international enquiry under the auspices of the UN to determine the truth and for action against the officers of the Security Forces and others found responsible for the violations — in a manner satisfactory to the international community. It has been alleged that some of the atrocities amounted to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The Sri Lankan Government headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa has strongly and consistently denied these allegations. While it admits the possibility that there might have been some violations to determine which it has been holding its own enquiry, it has indignantly refuted the allegations that the violations were of such a serious nature as to call for international intervention and action.
Unfortunately, human rights violations are rarely avoided in counter-insurgency situations however much the Security Forces try to do so.Terrorist and insurgent organisations train themselves well in creating situations where human rights violations do occur in order to seek the intervention of the international community.
What distinguishes a civilised and responsible Government sensitive to the rights of its civilians from a Government which is totally insensitive to the human rights dimensions of counter-insurgency operations is that the former takes cognisance of the allegations instead of summarily rejecting them, enquires into them and takes the follow-up action warranted by the results of the enquiry.
That is what the Sri Lankan Government has promised to do. Should it be trusted to do justice to the Sri Lankan Tamils or should it be distrusted and pressured to let the enquiry and follow-up action be handled by an international mechanism set up under the auspices of the UN?
While there were obviously serious violations, evidence available till now do not bear out the stand of those who accuse the Rajapaksa Government of violations amounting to crimes against humanity or war crimes.
In our anxiety and sympathy for the legitimate rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils, we should not exaggerate or over-state our arguments in support of or against an international enquiry. The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora which has been active in demanding an international enquiry has stepped up its pressure on Governments and non-Governmental personalities, including reputed journalists of India and other countries, to take cognisance of the forensic evidence collected by the documentary and support the demand for an international enquiry.
The Government of India should pay serious attention to the alleged evidence produced by the documentary and have it examined by our legal and humanitarian experts in order to see whether the documentary needs to be taken up officially and at the bilateral level with the Government of Sri Lanka and, if so, in what manner and for what objective.
The objective should be to ensure that justice is done to the relatives of the victims and that the honour of the victims is respected even if it be posthumously. It should not be to use the documentary as a stick to beat the SL Government with.
The Rajapaksa Government will facilitate a more meaningful Indian role in calming the feelings of indignation and concern of the Sri Lankan Tamils if it handles the documentary with the seriousness it deserves.Inaction is not an option for the Government of India. But action should be within acceptable limits of our bilateral relations with Sri Lanka and should not be overdone.