Why the Silence on Sri Lanka?

9/12/2011

The Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka released earlier this year alleges “tens of thousands of civilians” were killed in the operations of the Sri Lankan government against the last pockets of resistance from the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) between January and May of 2009.

The report describes how 330,000 civilians were trapped in the Vanni between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE in the final phase of the conflict. According to the report, the government targeted those civilians with artillery fire, including striking hospitals in which the injured were being treated. In turn, the LTTE forcibly kept civilians in the conflict zone, even shooting those who tried to flee.

In the aftermath of the conflict, the entire refugee population was interned for many months under poor conditions. Former LTTE fighters were detained in sites to which international agencies, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), did not have access.

These allegations, if proven, would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, the report concluded, recommending an international investigation and a range of other measures, all of which have yet to be implemented.

Since the conflict, the Government of Sri Lanka has maintained that in its victory over “terrorism,” it carried out a humanitarian rescue operation and incurred zero civilian casualties. In May 2009, the Human Rights Council (HRC) commended Sri Lanka for its approach, sometimes referred to as the “Sri Lanka model of counter-insurgency.”

Recently, the HRC initiated commissions of inquiry in Libya, Syria, and Cote d’Ivoire to promote the protection of civilians in those conflicts. The UN Security Council referred the situation in Libya to the International Criminal Court and similar calls are being heard regarding the situation in Syria.

Until now, the events in Sri Lanka have not led to similar demands, largely due to official efforts to keep these issues out of the media and to derail international efforts at accountability. While Sri Lanka’s national Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission is due to report in November, so far this body has served to obfuscate, rather than to uncover, the truth in relation to the conflict.

ICTJ held a discussion on accountability for alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes in Sri Lanka Friday, September 16. The panel, Why the Silence on Sri Lanka? examined how the alleged crimes have been shrouded in a cloak of silence. Gordon Weiss, former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka and author of “The Cage,” and Dr. Vasuki Nesiah, academic and Sri Lanka human rights activist, discussed how to ensure all crimes in Sri Lanka are properly investigated and other measures necessary to enable the victims of Sri Lanka’s conflict, and Sri Lanka as a whole, to move beyond its troubled past and current divisions to build a sustainable peace.