Time for a reality check on the Sri Lankan civil war

Emanuel Stoakes

130724761 202x300 Time for a reality check on the Sri Lankan civil warThe United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) are expected to consider a motion likely to be tabled by the United States on Sri Lankan accountabilty for war crimes next month, nearly three years after the end of the island nation’s bloody civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a secessionist rebel militia.

The government has been accused of multiple atrocities committed during its war effort in 2008 and 2009, including intentionally shelling thousands of civilians in a “no-fire zone”, extra-judicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances and attacks on civilian infrastructure including hospitals .Estimates are that between thousands and tens and thousands were killed in the endgame of the fighting.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration initially responded to such allegations by denying all but of late have peregrinated toward greater openness. It has moved on from echoing the president’s claim that “not one civilian was shot dead” toward acceptance of the government-appointed “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” (LLRC) panel’s findings that large numbers were killed.

This may be a sign of some progress, but the conclusions of theinternal investigation- which unsurprisingly exonerates the government of responsibility for suchalleged abuses, citing “crossfire” and other factors- contraststarkly with the views of authoritative external assessments. The report of a United Nations panel last year found“credible allegations of serious violations committed by the Government, including killing of civilians through widespread shelling”, and by other means of violence.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, stated after the report’srelease that “addressing violations of international humanitarian or human rights law is not a matter of choice or policy; it is a duty under domestic and international law”-duty or not, Sri Lanka have blocked any international inquiries to date and will try to do so again later this month.

The UN’s findings, reinforced by reports from human rights groups such as Amnesty International and international media which have included video footage of executions are all of a piece, according to apologists. They posit a malicious anti-Sri Lankan campaignby LTTE sympathisers who have duped / bought off the western media (apparently I’m in on it too, according to my trolls) in order to damage the country and intimidate itsleadership.

Unfortunately, some of the rebuttals provided by officials to disputethe more compelling evidence have onlyfurther damaged the credibility ofthe government’s rejectionist stance. After Channel Four broadcast an alleged “trophy video” of Sri Lankan forces executing unarmed men in 2009, a panel of domestic experts investigated the footage and declared that they had “scientifically” proven that it was a fake assembled most likely by pro-LTTE conspirators, and listed their objections.

In response, Philip Alston, Special Rappourteur for Summary, Arbitrary or Extra-judicial killings at the UNissued a point-by-point refutation of the Sri Lankan panel’s findings, drawn from the conclusion of world-leading experts in forensic pathology, forensic video analysis, and firearm evidence. Receiving the backing of Alston’s successor Christof Heyns, the case for the authenticity of the video ishard to doubt.

It has been around a thousand days since the conclusion of the war. In that time the response of the government to allegations of abuses, up to and including the LLRC report have been unconvincing,redolent of political self-servicerather than an authentic attempt at truth andreconciliation. It is telling that the only senior member of the government or armed forces jailed over war-related charges has been the former commander of the army, Sarath Fonseka, for accusing the defence secretary of ordering atrocities behind his back. Interestingly, Fonseka’s claim is supported by statements fromtwo othermembers of the army: see here and here.

As for the old cant that the mound of(inadmissible) evidence against the governmentissues from conspiratorial Tamil expats, even the most ardent patriots who instinctively rally to Rajapaksa must grow weary of reflexive cries of “lies and propaganda!”every time new allegations surface. It is obviously a very convenient deflection for the government to use ad infinitum, and cannot stop Sri Lankans from questioning the official narrative as they sober up from the war victory’s patriotic afterglow;as any doctor will advise, any panacea’s placebo comforts dim with overuse.

For this reason, among many others, Sri Lanka should allow for an independent inquiry into crimes that are alleged to have occurred during the endgame of the war- to decisively prove the inference of its representatives that there is nothing to hide.

Having said that, here’s a thought: if America can table such a motion and expect a response, why shouldn’t the armed forces of Tommy “we don’t do body counts” Franks, and all Bush’s men not expect the same over, say, certain events in Fallujah, Haditha or the lawfulness of the entire Iraq war?And doesn’t Sri Lanka’s failure to self-examine convincingly mirror Britain’s pathetic Hutton or Widgery reports?

Sri Lanka must be held open to international scrutiny for its alleged war crimes- Britain and America too.

But don’t hold your breath.

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  • Thrasos

    This system makes it so difficult to maintain a thread. You quote as your sources “UN, NGOs, journalists”. What you mean are individuals with their own agendas from the UN, individuals, again with their own agendas, from NGOs, and journalists, well we know how honest and incorruptible they are from the Levinson inquiry. As must be evident even to you the UN is amongst the more corrupt and self-serving organisations around. I need only quote the UN vote on the non-country of Palestine as evidence. Or Russia and China vetoing a condemnation of Syrian violence. So yes I do not see the UN as “fit” to tell me the time of day let alone conduct an investigation of this kind.

  • Emanuel Stoakes

    I think avoiding an independent investigation on such weak grounds is a really contemptible response to a crisis wherein perhaps tens of thousands of completely innocent people may have been shelled to death. If you think such pusillanimous deflections are satisfactory then I leave that you. But some sort of accountability has to come or the ghosts of the war won’t go away in one form or another. 

  • Emanuel Stoakes

    That’s a rather sweeping dismissal, hardly a fit response to the seriousness of the allegations- thousands of people killed with impunity. 

    So the NGOs, the UN, the journalists -the whole lot, all the evidence was gathered by people with “agendas”- no examples, cited of course-the whole thing just gets glibly defenestrated because of that, bypassing an engagement with anything substantial. That’s a brave response. Have you interacted with journalists, human rights workers and others about this? I have. I have never got the impression that some malicious agenda is at work on this issue- and if I did, I would be honestly very disturbed and I’d write about it.The same goes for your attitude toward the UN- again, hugely simplistic and lacking in cogency, in particular the Russia veto.That doesn’t actually prove anything about the institution in particular- it is just an example of security council politics by member states. The non-membership of Palestine is a funny reference point as well: the scandalous blocking of palestinian self-determination demonstrates the influence of the US in votes at the UN, yes, but the UN reports frequently point out the criminal actions perpetrated against Palestinians. The voting sessions, and various bodies at the UN demonstrate international political manoeuvres but that does not mean that its investigations are the same. If the UN is allowed access without hindrance, and there are proper checks on everything, transparency maximised – would you agree to  that?As for the Leveson inquiry, I don’t recall any phone hacking going on over this- yes, of course there’s corruption in journalism but its a big leap to say that all the evidence which is pretty solid on the SL front is inadmissible and flawed because of that. It is unrelated and seems like you are grasping at straws.It is absolutely in the interest of the Rajapaksa regime to convince Sri Lankans that an international inquiry would be an invasion of sovereignty and that to question the govt narrative on the war is to be unpatriotic, etc.May  a posit a counter-narrative: if there were atrocities committed by Sri Lankan forces, then that is not a poor reflection on the Sri Lankan people, rather those that are responsible for it as individuals, and those that may have ordered it.

  • Candidlee

    Mr Stoakes, you know as well as I that international practice is that when allegations of war crimes are made against a UN member state, it is the responsibility of that state to respond to those allegations and if necessary investigate them.  Only if the the state fails to do that, and the evidence is overwhelming, can the UN instigate an investigation. None of that applies in the case of Sri Lanka.

    Look at the sustained violent conflicts and wars that have occurred around the world over the last 20 years.  There are hundreds of such conflicts involving large and small states, yet there have been very few international investigations of the sort you suggest should be carried out relating to the allegations against Sri Lanka. In fact, those few investigations that have taken place have only occurred where the accusations have been made against small states.  Can you name one war international war crime investigation against any member of the UN Security Council or any other powerful nation?  I can’t, but perhaps you can put me wise.

    So why are you focussing your attention on Sri Lanka?  The suspicion is that it because Sri Lanka is a relatively small nation and it should be easier to “get Sri Lanka” than “get the UK”, so you take the easy option, rather than the more difficult and principled one.

    Another point is that it is completely false to say that the leaders of the LTTE were all killed.  If those in the West claiming to be interested in the truth about the events in Sri Lanka over the last 3 decades did even a little bit of investigation into this they would know that there are scores of LTTE supporters still alive and living in Western nations like the UK as well as elsewhere in Asia.  These were not necessarily the people who personally planted bombs and pulled the trigger, but are the people who raised finance and organised the transporting of the bombs and guns and others who used their influence to shield the LTTE from scrutiny in the West.  So why do you not use your blog in The Independent to demand an investigation into people such as dear old “Aunty Balasingham” and others living in the UK, including past and present MPs, who provided, and in some cases continue to provide, political support that enabled the Tamil Tigers to carry on their terrorist slaughter for over 30 years?

  • cessch

     i visited sri lanka.  and found things very bad for the tamils.  jools you dont know what ur talking about.  see

  • Nallathamby Yoganathan

    Mr Candidate- Thanks for your TYPICAL Srilankan DUPLICITY and HALF TRUTHS.
    Srilanka did the GENOCIDE of Tamils and Still continuing to do so without allowing any independent media, NGOs, INGOs or any sources. The WAR iiself the CRIME, That is GENOCIDE not WAR CRIMES by Srilanka, In the world history, there were few Genocides and UN did investigate all of them and punished and still punishing the NAZIs but WHY NOT Srilanka. Why Srilanka is an EXCEPTION????????. 
    Srilankan security forces – almost 100% SINHALA ONLY- started killing Tamils and Muslims 30 years before the lTTE even born with few youngsters. 

  • Nallathamby Yoganathan

    As per the UK, the UK has an INDEPENDENT legal system unlike the SIN-HELLa racist Srilanka where almost all institutions ARE 100% SIN-HELLa racist ones because NOT EVEN one person STILL not punished for the massive killings by the Srilanksn security forces and Security forces aided thugs who killed more than 10,000 Tamils since 1948 until the LTTE born during the Srilankan state aided SYSTEMATIC Ethnic Cleansing of Tamils and Muslims since 1948 until the freedom fighters LTTE were born. 

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