GENEVA — Senior Sri Lankan government officials and military officers may bear criminal responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during an offensive near the end of the island’s civil war, according to a new investigation that backs calls for an international inquiry into those events.
The investigation, released on Tuesday by the Public Interest Advocacy Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy group in Australia, in consultation with prominent international jurists, went beyond other nonpartisan inquiries into the well-documented violence that punctuated the final days of that conflict, Asia’s longest civil war.
Although the Australian group’s investigation draws partly on earlier documented reporting, the group’s inquiry took testimony from new witnesses and submitted its findings to forensic and legal analysis to provide a possible basis for prosecution.
Whether the investigation’s conclusions will seriously affect any international effort to prosecute Sri Lankan leaders remains unclear. But the investigation was released at a delicate time for the country’s government, which is facing increased international criticism over its failure to hold anyone accountable for the large number of killings and other abuses that came in the final chapter of the war in May 2009, endingover 20 years of conflict.
The United States is preparing to sponsor a third successive resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva aimed at pressuring the Sri Lankan government to address the accountability issue.
William Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University in London who is an authority on war crimes and was among the experts enlisted to examine the Australian inquiry’s evidence, said it was the first to focus on issues that are relevant to a criminal prosecution.
“What it demonstrates is there is clear evidence that a prosecutor can go on,” he said in an interview.
The Australian inquiry found evidence that both Tamil Tiger rebels and Sri Lankan armed forces committed a wide range of serious human rights violations, including executions, rape and torture, but concludes the military “committed the vast majority of alleged crimes” in the final six months of the war.
Moreover, the report continues, some of the alleged crimes were committed with “such flagrant and reckless disregard for the laws of war which strongly suggests there was intent to commit those crimes.”
The structure of the Sri Lankan Army was so well-established, the report adds, “that criminal responsibility for certain crimes if proven at trial could lead to convictions of senior military commanders and Sri Lankan government officials” as well as senior surviving members of the Tamil Tiger rebels.
The report, titled “Island of Impunity?,” promises to stoke a long-running dispute between human rights groups and President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government in Sri Lanka, which has denied there were civilian casualties in what it termed a “humanitarian rescue operation” by the military at the end of the war and says it is conducting its own investigation into events.
The top United Nations human rights official, Navi Pillay, who visited Sri Lanka in 2013, has called for an international inquiry, and the British prime minister, David Cameron, in November said his government would back that motion if there was no sign of progress toward a credible investigation in Sri Lanka by March.
The allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity have surfaced previously. A United Nations panel of experts reported that as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed during the military offensive that ended the war, the vast majority of them as a result of army shelling of areas crammed with civilians.
A series of documentaries by Britain’s independent television company Channel Four also presented video of the shelling of civilians and evidence of summary executions of prisoners, including the 12-year-old son of the Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
The Australian-led inquiry, however, says the testimony it took from 30 witnesses, of whom half had not been interviewed before, added important detail to the knowledge of events in the closing months of the war, providing what its authors called “an evidentiary platform for an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity.”