The Sri Lankan government is grappling with the political fallout of a leaked UN report accusing it – and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels – of potential crimes against humanity in the closing days of the civil war.
The report on the final stage of the war between LTTE and the Sri Lankan authorities was leaked to the media, containing allegations, among others, that the army shelled hospitals, UN facilities and aid workers with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The report further alleges that the government intimidated and in some cases silenced the media, even abducting journalists in “white vans”.
Meanwhile, UK television network Channel 4 last week said it will air what it claims is “probably the most horrific” footage the station has ever shown, after obtaining “trophy” videos of what it claims are Sri Lankan war crimes.
According to the network, footage obtained by the station includes “extrajudicial executions filmed by Sri Lankan soldiers as war trophies on their phones; the aftermath of shelling in civilian camps and hospitals alleged to have been deliberately targeted by Sri Lankan government forces; dead female Tamil fighters who appear to have been systematically raped; and pictures which document Tamil fighters alive in the custody of Sri Lankan government forces and then later dead, apparently having been executed.”
The director of ITN productions, Callum Macrae, told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that the filmmakers had “trawled through hours of devastating imagery shot by Tamils under attack and Sri Lankan soldiers as war trophies. The claims made by eyewitnesses in the film appear to be illustrated in each case by video footage or still images.”
The Sri Lankan government has reportedly complained to the UK’s media regulator Ofcom regarding the station’s intention to air the footage.
Channel 4’s announcement comes a week after a UN report on the closing days of the war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan authorities was leaked to the media, containing allegations, among others, that the army shelled hospitals, UN facilities and aid workers with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The report further alleges that the government intimidated and in some cases silenced the media, even abducting journalists in “white vans”.
“The government says it pursued a ‘humanitarian rescue operation’ with a policy of ‘zero civilian casualties’. In stark contrast, the Panel found credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law were committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” the report reads.
“Despite grave danger in the conflict zone, the LTTE refused civilians permission to leave, using them as hostages, at times even using their presence as a strategic human buffer between themselves and the advancing Sri Lanka Army. It implemented a policy of forced recruitment throughout the war, but in the final stages greatly intensified its recruitment of people of all ages, including children as young as fourteen. The LTTE forced civilians to dig trenches for its own defenses, thereby contributing to blurring the distinction between combatants and civilians and exposing civilians to additional harm. All of this was done in a quest to pursue a war that was clearly lost; many civilians were sacrificed on the altar of the LTTE cause and its efforts to preserve its senior leadership.
A former UN spokesperson for the UN in Sri Lanka was reported in the UK’s Independent newspaper as saying that the report “damns the government of Sri Lanka’s so-called war on terror, which incidentally killed many thousands of civilians. The Tamil Tigers were equally rotten in their disdain for life.”
Sri Lankan media has meanwhile been busily criticising the veracity of the report, the UN panel involved, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon himself.
Yesterday, Ki-moon announced that he would welcome a mandate from the UN Human Rights Council, Security Council or General Assembly to launch an international war crimes investigation into the final two years of Sri Lanka’s civil war, as per the recommendation of the UN report.
Such a mandate would require consent from the Sri Lankan government – unlikely, given that it has labelled the report as “fundamentally flawed and patently biased” – or through a decision by the UN’s 192 member states.
The US Embassy in Sri Lanka has also privately expressed concerns about the Sri Lankan government’s actions during the closing days of the war.
In a leaked US Embassy cable sent on January 15 2010, Ambassador Patricia Butenis remarked there was a clear “lack of attention to accountability” following the mass killings of Tamils in the final days of the war, a situation she described as “regrettable” but unsurprising.
“There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power,” Butenis said in the cable.
“In Sri Lanka this is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers and [then] opposition candidate General Fonseka.”
The UN report and subsequent international furore likely to be generated in the wake of the Channel 4 program places the Maldives in a difficult position, between its stated (and much promoted) human rights agenda, and its national and economic interest.
Sri Lanka is one of the Maldives’ key economic and regional partners, and a major transit hub for both trade and tourists visiting the country. President Mahindra Rajapaksa extended the Maldives a US$200 million credit line in November, and even travelled to the Maldives to mediate a dispute between the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party and opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) in July last year. President Mohamed Nasheed subsequently attended Rajapaksa’s swearing in ceremony.
At the same time the Maldives is a vocal member of the UN Human Rights Council and an avid proponent of human rights, with the Foreign Ministry only recently declaring that it was severing diplomatic ties with the Libyan government due of “clear evidence that the Gaddafi regime is guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
It is not inconceivable that were the UN’s case to gather momentum and international public opinion, the matter could go to vote and the Maldives could be compelled to publicly defend its neighbour from the international community.
President Nasheed’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair emphasised that the Maldives saw the end of both the terrorist attacks and the civil war in Sri Lanka as “a very positive development.”
“The government has very close ties with [Sri Lankan President] Rajapaksa,” Zuhair said. “Our position is that the Maldives has very good relations with neighbouring countries, and has hundreds if not thousands of years of trade and bilateral relationships with Sri Lanka.”
The post-war situation, he suggested, was “fluid”.
“I’m concerned the UN report is a bit belated. Why say it now? Why not when the war was going on? My point is that this report only appeared after the war was over. We support the Sri Lankan government’s desire for peace and harmony, and any government that brought about that peace should be held in high honour.”
If an investigation was to take place, Zuhair suggested, “it should happen in an independent manner, with reconciliation on both sides.”
The Maldives’ Foreign Minister Ahmed Naseem is currently in the UK and was not responding at time of press.