Sri Lanka, UN Duel over Wartime Investigations

Article excerpt

A UN panel is set to monitor how Sri Lanka responds to allegations of violating human rights during the end of its civil war with the Tamil Tigers. But Sri Lanka has resisted this and other outside attempts at accountability.

One year after Sri Lanka's decisive victory over Tamil insurgents, controversy still swirls over the bloody end to the 26- year civil war.

Sri Lankan officials argue that they defeated an outlawed terrorist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which had refused to make peace. They insist that their military strategy was legitimate and had popular support. Political leaders have drawn parallels to America's wartime actions and asked why nobody calls Western powers to account for civilian suffering.

Critics say both parties to the conflict violated international humanitarian laws and terrorized trapped civilians. Human rights groups have called for an international inquiry into the war's final stages, when tens of thousands of civilians may have died during repeated shelling by government forces of designated no-fire zones.

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United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has waded into the debate by setting up a panel of experts to advise him on Sri Lanka's progress on accountability on human rights issues. The panel's members have not been appointed, but the idea has met strong resistance from Sri Lanka. It fears a repeat of the Goldstone inquiry into the 2008 Gaza conflict - which accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes - and being subjected to a tribunal.

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In an attempt to stall such efforts, Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa recently named his own commission of inquiry into the conflict between 2002 and 2009. A former chief justice will head the "Lessons Learnt Truth and Reconciliation Commission," which has yet to begin its work. 2002 was the year of a Norwegian-brokered ceasefire and the start of peace talks with the LTTE.

This approach got a diplomatic boost late last month when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave it her public support after meeting Sri Lanka's visiting foreign minister. In a statement, Ms. Clinton said the commission "held promise" and that she expected it would "fully investigate serious allegations of violation." She added that the Sri Lankan panel should be "independent, impartial and competent."

Human rights groups point out that previous inquiries into wartime abuses, including abductions by paramilitaries and related violence, failed to lead to any prosecutions and that their findings were often suppressed by authorities.

"There's no precedent for a productive investigative commission in Sri Lanka and lots of precedents for failed commissions and failed inquiries," says Alan Keenan, an analyst for the International Crisis Group in London and coauthor of a recent report into the final months of the conflict. …