Sri Lanka faces uphill task at UNHCR

In May 2009, the Sri Lankan armed forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after a brutal three-year war. A ruthless terrorist group fighting for a separate ‘Homeland’ for t

Published: 09th March 2012 12:21 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 06:32 PM   |  A+A-

1-SRI

In May 2009, the Sri Lankan armed forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after a brutal three-year war. A ruthless terrorist group fighting for a separate ‘Homeland’ for the Tamils called Tamil Eelam in the North and East of Sri Lanka, had been destroyed, and all its top leaders killed. The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the island’s majority community, the Sinhalese, promptly concluded that with the destruction of the LTTE, the “Tamil problem” had been solved once and for all.

But the horrible happenings during the 2006-2009 war, especially between January and May 2009, returned to haunt Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan Tamils settled in western countries (called the Tamil Diaspora); international human rights organisations; governments of western countries like the US, UK and France; and above all, the United Nations (UN), began to bring out the horrors of the war. They demand an impartial and international inquiry, and action against those who had indulged in the wanton killing of innocent Tamil civilians who were not part of the LTTE.

The LTTE, which used ordinary people as a “shield” to protect itself from the Sri Lankan army, forced them to go with it whenever it moved. Finally, in early 2009, the thoroughly exhausted and impoverished people, numbering about 3,00,000, were cornered in a small strip of land at Mullivaikkal on the banks of the Nandikadal lagoon in the eastern district of Mullaitivu. In their midst were a few thousands LTTE fighters along with their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

These people were hemmed in by the Nandikadal lagoon on the west, and the Bay of Bengal on the east. The north and the south were blockaded by the Sri Lankan army. Though this was a ‘No Fire Zone’, the army shelled the area with heavy guns, and the air force bombarded it too. It was alleged that makeshift hospitals were also bombed, and supplies of food and medicine were restricted on the grounds that the LTTE would cart them away.

Even before the war ended UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and the Foreign Ministers of Britain and France, visited Sri Lanka and urged Rajapaksa to halt the military operations, so that civilians could quit the war zone unhurt. But Rajapaksa refused to yield as he was worried the LTTE would use the ceasefire to re-group and attack.

Consistent army shelling, often provoked by the LTTE’s shelling, forced the people to escape and seek shelter with the Sri Lankan army, which put them up in giant refugee camps. Top LTTE leaders including Prabhakaran were killed, and about 10,000 LTTE fighters and helpers surrendered. It is alleged that the some top LTTE leaders were shot dead even as they attempted to surrender, waving white flags, as arranged previously. The whereabouts of some top LTTE leaders who surrendered are still not known.

Celebrations Turn Sour

While the Sinhalese and Muslims celebrated the victory, the event only pushed the Tamils into gloom, and invited the odium of the international community and human rights groups.

Gordon Weiss, the UN’s spokesman at that time in Colombo, ventured to guess that 30,000 civilians might have died in the last phase. He had to “guess”, because no outside humanitarian aid agencies had been allowed to enter the war zone at the height of the fighting. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had been asked to leave on the grounds that their safety could not be guaranteed. This made the last phase of the conflict “a war without witnesses”.

The international community had to rely on tales narrated by refugees who had fled the country. Pictures taken by Sri Lankan soldiers with their mobile phones showing naked Tamil men being shot and testimonies of other atrocities, were featured in a video entitled Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields which was shown by Britain’s Channel 4. The video was shown in the UN and the world over creating a sensation.

The confinement of 2,80,000 refugees in camps for over a year also triggered world criticism. International rights groups alleged the refugees were treated as prisoners, interrogated and sexually exploited.

Immediately after the war, the UN accepted the Lankan government’s argument that it had to use force to rid the country of the LTTE, described as the “world’s most ruthless terrorist group” and banned in all major countries. However, before long, the UN realised the Lankan government was not doing enough to bring about normalcy, to inquire into the alleged atrocities and bring about a political solution to the Tamil question.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed a three-man panel of experts to look into the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and advise him. The panel under Marzuki Darusman, submitted a report in 2011, which said the Sri Lankan government had made no progress in making up with the Tamil population after the war. Further, the key issue of “accountability” or “responsibility” for the killings in the last phase of the war had not been addressed when there was “credible evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE”. 

The Sri Lankan government criticised the report saying it was biased in favour of the LTTE and relied on anonymous sources whose identity would be kept a secret for 20 years.

In 2010, the Lankan government appointed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to go into the issue. The LLRC submitted its report after examining thousands of witnesses in places where the war was fought. The commission noted that civilian casualties had been “considerable” and suggested the government find out if excessive force was used at any stage and if so, bring the culprits to book. The commission said that the armed forces had acted with restraint under very trying circumstances. It also suggested many measures such as informing family members of the whereabouts of those LTTE fighters who had been detained, releasing those detainees against whom there was no evidence of wrong doing, and bringing down the level of deployment of the army in the Tamil-speaking areas. 

The international community noted the positive features of the LLRC report but criticised it for blurring over the issue of “accountability” for the killings.In this context the 19th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) began in Geneva on February 27.

US Resolution

Ignoring strong objections from Sri Lanka and India, the United States on March 7, moved a resolution in the UNHRC in which it asked the Lankan government to accept the “assistance” of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to implement the recommendations of the LLRC and meet all the relevant obligations under international humanitarian law.

It requested the Lankan government to present a “comprehensive” action plan as “expeditiously as possible” detailing the steps it had taken and would take, to implement the LLRC’s recommendations, and to investigate violations of international law.

The resolution asked the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) in the UN, to provide “advice and technical assistance” to the Lankans to ensure this. The resolution also asked the Lankan government to accept UN assistance. It went on to “request” the OHCHR to present a report to the UNHRC at its 22nd session in September this year.

 Lanka Resolves to Fight

Reacting to the resolution, Lanka’s Ambassador at the UN, Tamara Kunanayakam, said the US was trying to turn the UNHRC into a tribunal. “This has never been done before. It is creating a precedent. Most countries are not happy about it because that is not the purpose of the Human Rights Council. We are continuing to fight,” she said.

The Lankan government has consistently said that no outside interference was necessary because it is actively engaged in implementing the LLRC’s recommendations. Moreover, it is a UN norm that domestic mechanisms to rectify the wrongs should be allowed to finish their work before international intervention can be envisaged.

The Sri Lankan government has been fighting tooth and nail against the US move. It has said that most Afro-Asian countries, the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organisation of Islamic Countries, Pakistan and China, are against outside interference at this stage.

The Lankan government has no faith in the impartiality of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navaneetham Pillay, who according to Kunanayakam, is trying to bring about a “regime change” in Sri Lanka under the “Right to Protect” philosophy using “angelic and moralistic language.”

Sri Lanka has added that the charges of “war crimes” are based on second hand and unverifiable evidence. While the UN Secretary General’s panel had relied on a few secret sources, the LLRC relied on evidence given by the victims in the war zone, it is pointed out.

The Lankan delegation has said that Sri Lanka is being branded a “failed state” only to enable the US and western countries to intervene to bring about a “regime change”, or oust Rajapaksa from power. Instead of appreciating Sri Lanka for defeating a terrorist group the western countries are persecuting Sri Lanka, Lankans complain.

India helps Sri Lanka

India’s delegate told the council that his country was opposed to sporadic “country specific” resolutions when every country had to appear for a thorough examination once in four years under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) scheme. Since Sri Lanka is to be examined by the UNHRC under the UPR in September-October this year, the Sri Lankan delegation has asked for time until October to implement the recommendations of the LLRC.

Lanka’s Remedial Steps

The Sri Lankan Army had set up a Court of Inquiry to look into charges of excessive use of force during the war. The Department of Census collected figures on deaths in the Northern Province from January to May 2009, to find out how many had died and how. It found 9,000 persons had died, 6,558 of them had died due to the war.

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