An important editorial in the Financial Times:
Last year, Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, commissioned a report into human rights violations in the closing months of the decades-long Sri Lankan civil war that ended in 2009. The report points to credible evidence of mass shelling of civilians and summary executions. It also concludes that Sri Lanka’s own internal inquiries into these events have fallen woefully short. But Mr Ban says he is powerless to take any further action. Without the agreement of the host country or a body such as the UN security-council, he says, he cannot launch a judicial investigation.
The secretary-general is wrong to walk away from his own inquiry without putting up a stronger fight. Certainly the obstacles are formidable. The Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government, itself deeply implicated in the alleged abuses, has called the report fiction, and has used an annual May day parade to whip up public opposition to the report. It did not even allow the three UN panel members into the country to carry out an investigation.
Nor are Russia and China, both members of the security council, likely to support a judicial inquiry they would characterise as “interference” in a sovereign state’s internal affairs. Indeed, some countries with civil uprisings of their own view Sri Lanka’s merciless destruction of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – a cruel and misguided separatist organisation led by a megalomaniac – as a textbook lesson in how to deal with domestic insurgents. As if this were not enough, Mr Ban is dealing with his own campaign for re-election. Pressing such a controversial issue is not calculated to win him votes.
Yet the findings of the report are so stark, they cannot simply be left hanging. They show that up to 40,000 civilians could have been killed in the closing months of the war. The UN report points to possible war crimes including the shelling of safe zones, bombing of hospitals and summary executions.
The goal of defeating the Tamil Tigers was not wrong. The organisation ruthlessly used civilians as human shields and had few qualms about killing non-combatants. Any judicial inquiry should seek to punish its crimes too. But the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa is in danger of squandering the real opportunities presented by peace through its refusal to seek a broader reconciliation with the disadvantaged Tamil community. A transparent investigation into suspected war crimes is part of that process.
The impasse exposes a faultline between western liberal democracies that want greater respect for human rights and the non-interventionist stance of emerging powers such as China. Yet if Mr Ban lets the issue drop, the message will be clear. Authoritarian governments have carte blanche to deal with internal security issues as they see fit, without regard to the laws of war or international humanitarian rules. If 40,000 – or 400,000 – civilians die in the process, then so be it. That would be a terrible message indeed.