NEW YORK — One year after the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, controversy is raging over whether war crimes were committed in the island conflict.
The United Nations, the government of Sri Lanka and human rights groups are embroiled in battle over who will establish the definitive account of the civil war’s last months and establish whether or not atrocities took place.
In recent weeks, three international human rights groups — International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International — have publicly demanded that independent inquiries be undertaken into war crimes perpetrated in 2009 by both the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam and the Sri Lankan government.
In return, the Sri Lankan government has slammed the rights groups, saying that they have singled out Sri Lanka unfairly and are “front NGOs” representing Western powers seeking to destabilize the country.
“We don’t want Amnesty International telling us what to do,” said External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris. “Why single out Sri Lanka. Is it because Sri Lanka is a poor country, Sri Lanka can be pushed around — kicked around like a football?”
The Sri Lankan government has adamantly denied the accusations of war crimes made against them and resisted any moves toward international inquiries, arguing that it was the government’s sovereign right to militarily defeat the LTTE, a terrorist organization, within its own borders.
Pieiris has said that the pursuit of any outside inquiry by the U.N. would be "repugnant to the basic values and principles that are enshrined in the U.N. system,” according to the BBC.
Human rights groups, however, charge the U.N. is doing far too little. They claim the international body repeatedly looked the other way in the last months of the civil war when faced with evidence that the Sri Lankan government pursued a campaign that is reported to have caused high numbers of civilian deaths.
Estimates vary widely of the number of civilians killed from January to May 2009, when the government staged its final offensive against the LTTE. The U.N. has said that 7,000 were killed but the ICG claims that at least 30,000 and as many as 75,000 may have died.
The government of Sri Lanka has said that no civilians were killed during the last stages of the battle.
"The U.N. never revealed what it knew about the final days of the conflict, acknowledged the scale of the abuse that took place, or pushed for accountability," said Madhu Malhotra, Amnesty International's deputy director for the Asia-Pacific. "At the end of the war, atrocities against civilians and enemy combatants appeared to be fueled by a sense that there would be no real international consequences for violating the law."
Louise Arbour, head of ICG, said that the willingness of U.N. agencies to withhold criticism of the government’s disregard for civilian life in order to deliver humanitarian aid made it “close to complicit” in the bloody end of the war.
"The U.N. should look at how it behaved in the whole episode," said Arbour, the former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, in an interview with Foreign Policy. "I think it's a very sobering moment where the United Nations should reexamine the price it is willing to pay to maintain humanitarian access."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has defended the U.N.’s actions and rejected allegations of complicity. Three months ago, Ban announced he would create a panel of experts to inquire into the allegations of war crimes, like the Goldstone Commission created by the U.N. in 2009 to investigate war crimes in Gaza.
So far, the panel has not been created, though Ban's spokespeople have said it’s being actively worked on.
Instead, on May 15, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced his intent to establish an eight-member Sri Lankan panel called the “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission,” in one of Sri Lanka’s state-run newspapers. Few details were given about the members but they are expected to give their findings in six months.
Rajapaksa sent External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris to New York and Washington to garner support for the effort. After her meeting with Peiris, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced the United States’ support for the commission, saying that it “holds promise.”
Clinton was one of the few prominent government representatives to call for a cease fire in February 2009, saying both sides of the war needed to allow civilians to escape the battle zone, and that political discussions should be resumed. The Sri Lankan government refused.
Six months later, the U.S. State Department submitted a report to congress detailing dozens of incidents that it said could constitute crimes against humanity. Among them were eyewitness accounts of government shelling within “no-fire zones,” where more than 200,000 Tamil civilians were kept hostage by the LTTE.
Last week, the Obama administration sent Samantha Power, award-winning author of "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide" and a senior adviser to President Barack Obama on human rights, to Colombo to meet with top government officials. Her four-day visit included a discussion with Rajapaksa and Pieris about accountability and reconciliation, according the U.S. Embassy in Colombo.