The authorities in Sri Lanka are under mounting pressure to agree to an independent inquiry into a military operation against Tamil rebels, after a UN panel found “credible allegations” that the government committed war crimes and offences against humanity.
A leaked report by a team established by UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, suggests government troops systematically shelled civilians it had encouraged to gather in so-called “no-fire zones”, at hospitals, at the UN’s hub, and even close to an area where aid workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were coming to collect wounded people from the beach. It says the government allowed this even though it knew from its own intelligence the impact of the repeated bombardment.
The panel, which calls for an independent international inquiry, concludes that “tens of thousands” of civilians lost their lives, and that most casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling. It says the government sought to intimidate and silence the media and its critics, and even resorted to abduction, using “white vans” to make people disappear. The report says there is evidence that Tamil rebels also committed war crimes and that they used civilians as human shields, shot dead those who tried to flee the war zone, and forcibly recruited teenagers to become fighters.
The damning report, parts of which have been leaked to media in Sri Lanka, is likely to be the most comprehensive insight yet into the bloody final stages of the 2009 offensive that crushed the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, known as the Tamil Tigers) and brought an end to a decades-long civil war that had taken more than 70,000 lives. At the time, there was widespread international criticism of the way the government had failed to protect Tamil civilians caught in the war zone. But the authorities dismissed this and President Mahinda Rajapaksa was re-elected the following year on the back of his victory over the rebels.
The UN has yet to make public the report or comment on the recommendations of the three-member panel. However, Gordon Weiss, a former spokesman for the UN in Sri Lanka who served in the capital, Colombo, during the offensive against the LTTE, said 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.”