The Forgotten Conflict And Post-War Justice And Accountability In Sri Lanka

by Srini Sitaraman, 'The Albany (NY) Tribune,' June 11, 2013

The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, Colombo

The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, Colombo

On 21st March 2013, the United States introduced a resolution on war crimes and crimes against humanity aimed at Sri Lanka for its role in the prosecution of war against the Liberation of Tamil Tigers of Elam (LTTE) in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

An earlier resolution sponsored by the United States in March 2012 called up on the Lankan government to “implement the constructive recommendations made in the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” (LLRC), and take all necessary steps to “initiate credible and independent actions to ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans.” The US sponsored resolution also requested that the government of Sri Lanka to expeditiously follow a plan to implement the recommendations made by the United Nations.

In response, the Sri Lankan government has openly defied international recommendations and decided to deny access to independent investigations of human rights atrocities in its conduct of the war against the LTTE from September 2008 to May 2009. The prevarications and justifications of the Sri Lankan government are rather brazen and shameful; besides the delay tactics in implementing the LLRC recommendations violates the letter of international law in every which way possible. Another culprit in this complex story is Sri Lankan’s large neighbor, India, which has not held up its share of the bargain and is complicit in Sri Lanka’s use of indiscriminate and excessive violence to crush the LTTE along with it thousands of unarmed civilians. Although India voted in favor of U.S. sponsored UNHRC resolutions in 2012 and 2013, it did so after so much agonizing and did not decide until few hours before the vote as to whether it was going to vote for or against. India along with China and Russia have shielded Sri Lanka from independent UN investigations and UN visits to Northern Sri Lanka in the name of state sovereignty and non-interference in the internal matters.

The actions of the Indian government also demonstrate unimaginable moral equivalence and Machiavellian positioning. We can be sure that strategic and realist considerations are driving India’s deep-seated discomfort in having to take sides on this issue in which it has had a major role to play either unwittingly or due to sheer geographically proximity.

India much like Sri Lanka wants this problem gone away, it wants to puts the past behind it and move on to more lucrative things such as rebuilding the war-torn Sri Lankan economy. More importantly India wants to forestall the aggressive forays by China, which has rapidly gained significant strategic foothold in Sri Lanka and increased its military and financial support as a part of its “string-of-pearls” strategy.

Driven by strategic and economic considerations, India and Sri Lanka want to whitewash the 30-year old brutal civil war and return to “normalcy.” Although wanting to return Sri Lankan back to normalcy is perfectly understandable, but wanting to completely ignore the enormous atrocities committed by Sri Lanka in the conduct of war is inexcusable and the international community should hold both Sri Lanka and India accountable.

There are other domestic security considerations that are preventing India from emerging as a forceful advocate of human rights for the oppressed Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka. On 8th March 2013 addressing the Indian Parliament, the External Affairs Minister of India, Mr. Salman Khurshid, said that India should be very cautious on this matter because whatever it does, those actions “should not be thrown back at us in the future as everybody is not our friend.”

Instead Mr. Khurshid encouraged his counterpart the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka to actively and directly engage with the Americans “to arrive at a consensual draft which is acceptable to everybody.” So India sat on the fence and it was hoping against hope that a vote on this issue not be scheduled in the UNHRC and if indeed such a vote where to occur the language be such that it acceptable mostly to the Sri Lankans. But eventually a coalition of domestic forces, especially the regional Tamil political parties in Southern India that were instrumental in forcing the hand of the Indian government to vote against Sri Lanka, which India did much to its dislike. New Delhi also did not want to go against the United States, its new strategic partner.

According to the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts Report, known as the Darusman report, “between September 2008 and 19 May 2009, the Sri Lanka Army advanced its military campaign” against the LTTE by relying on “large-scale and widespread shelling, causing large numbers of civilian deaths,” it launched mortar attacks on “three consecutive No Fire Zones, where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate,” it shelled the “United Nations hub, food distribution lines and near the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) ships that were coming to pick up the wounded and their relatives from the beaches,” and it “systematically shelled hospitals on the frontlines.”

This conflict began because of the growing ethnic chauvinism of the Sinhala majority LTTE was created by Velupillai Prabhakaran in response to the growing marginalization of the Tamils and increasing Sinhala chauvinism. However, LTTE supremo Prabhakaran quickly radicalized the group and started using violent tactics such as suicide bombings, recruitment of child soldiers, targeted assassination of moderate Tamil leaders, and brutal reprisal attacks against Sri Lanka military personal. The three-year (1987-1990) disastrous military intervention by the Indian military exacerbated the situation and led to a sensational attack by a female suicide bomber on the former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on 21st May 1991, which blew him into bits, while he was campaigning for re-election in Southern India.

Sri Lanka with military assistance from China and Pakistan was able to put significant pressure on the LTTE and severely degrade its military capabilities and force the LTTE to retreat deep into the forests of Northern Sri Lanka. On 18th May 2009, LTTE Chief Prabhakaran was cornered in his hideout and killed by the Sri Lankan military. Although tears were shed among the radical militant wing of the Tamils and other distant sympathizers, there was a huge sigh of relief both in New Delhi and excessive celebration in Colombo. But soon after videos and reports began to circulate as to how the Sri Lankan government prosecuted this war in violation of laws of war.

The Sri Lankan military launched indiscriminate attacks against civilian targets despite the knowledge that such shelling would have significant impact on the civilian populations, as estimated “by its own intelligence systems.” In addition, the Colombo government “sought to intimidate and silence the media and other critics of the war through a variety of threats and actions, including the use of white vans to abduct and to make people disappear.” The Darusman Report concludes that there are highly credible allegations of human rights abuses against the Sri Lankan military and government. Report of the Secretary-General’s Internal Review Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka, November 2012, also known as the Petrie Report found that from January 2009 onwards, the Sri Lankan Government “forces carried out intense artillery shelling which killed or injured many civilians – whether in makeshift IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) sites in the NFZs (No Fire Zones), at hospitals, or in UN compounds.”

Frances Harrison, who was the resident BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka, estimates that the military operations against terrorists—as the Sri Lankan government dubbed it—might have caused at least 50,000 to perish. The indiscriminate shelling, the silencing of vocal critics inside the Sri Lankan government, and the subsequent point-blank execution of children, including the LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s 12-year old son (Balachandran) and others thought to have been associated with LTTE, and the mass rapes of Tamil women suggest actions by the Sri Lankan government that could be described as acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Put simply, this clearly falls into the category of genocide as identified by the UN Convention on Genocide of 1948.

A petition drive lead by Amnesty International in India has produced over 1.4 million signatures urging the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to “stand up for justice in Sri Lanka, and act to end the climate of impunity.”

It is time for the Indian government to find its spine and stand up for a right and support a just cause as Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahmata Gandhi would do and urge the Sri Lankan government to allow for an independent international investigation and support the establishment of a UN-led structure to monitor the current human rights situation in Sri Lanka to effectively redress the grievances of the minority population and other groups affected by the three-decade long conflict, and inaugurate a genuine reconciliation and reintegration process.

Srini Sitaraman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Clark University, Worcester, MA.

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