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Calls for war crimes inquiry over 20,000 civilian deaths in Sri Lanka

[Times Online UK, Friday, 29 May 2009 12:26 3 Comments]

Jeremy Page, South Asia Correspondent

The Sri Lankan Government scored a propaganda victory after the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution describing the conflict as a "domestic matter that doesn’t warrant outside interference"  Louis Charbonneau/Reuters Sri Lanka faced new calls for a war crimes inquiry today after an investigation by The Times revealed that more than 20,000 civilians were killed – mostly by the army – in the latter stages of the war against the Tamil Tigers.

The army dismissed that figure as an exaggeration and repeated the Government’s assertion that not a single civilian was killed by government forces in the final assault on the northeastern conflict zone.

Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, a military spokesman, declined to say how many civilian deaths had been confirmed, but insisted they had all been caused by the Tigers, also known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

“This is an exaggerated story. Whoever has put up this report has been paid by the LTTE,” he told The Times.

“There can’t be any civilians killed by government forces in that area. How can the UN know about this? It had no people on the ground.” The UN, however, described its figures as “well-informed estimates”, adding that it did not have “precise, verifiable numbers” because of a lack of access to the conflict zone and the camps holding refugees from the area.

“The UN has publicly and repeatedly said that the number of people killed in recent months has been unacceptably high and it has shared its estimates with the government as well as others concerned,” said Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“The point is the UN has not been shy about the scale of human suffering and civilian casualties,” she said. “It has been ringing the alarm bells for a long time.”

Sri Lanka officially declared victory in its 26-year civil war with the Tigers early last week after killing almost all of their leadership, including Velupillai Prabhakaran, their founder, in a tiny patch of coconut grove on the northeastern coast.

Backed by China, Russia and other allies, Sri Lanka also easily defeated a proposal for a war crimes inquiry at a special session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday and Wednesday.

But the new civilian death toll figure has prompted new calls for an inquiry, which could still be ordered by Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, or by Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Managala Samaraweera, a former Foreign Minister who left the current government to become an opposition politician in 2005, told The Times that an inquiry was the only way for Sri Lanka to repair the damage to its international reputation.

“As Sri Lankans, we’re extremely concerned about what happened during the last stages of the conflict,” he said. “The government must immediately initiate an independent inquiry. Only by doing so will Sri Lanka be able to clear up its good name.”

Human rights groups, aid workers and numerous civilian witnesses have accused the Tigers and government forces of repeatedly firing on non-combatants in violation of international humanitarian law.

The Tigers have also been accused of using civilians as human shields and forcibly recruiting children, while the army has been accused of deliberately shelling hospitals in the conflict zone.

Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, told The Times: “There’s no doubt there’s a need for a war crimes inquiry. The whole operation has been done in secret and the scale of deaths is so large that it has to be investigated. This is not going to go away.”

The UN and the Red Cross also complained today that the Sri Lankan government was still refusing to provide aid workers with full access to the former conflict zone despite a direct appeal by the UN Secretary General.

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  • S.V.Ramanan said:

    Atrocious.As Canada has put it’even the magnitude of the problem has not been taken note of’by the UNHRC when voting for war crimes action against Rajapaksha Govt.Worse still, we the witness the spectacle of India, China of Tianamen fame and Pakistan,Terror incarnate on the same side in blocking the UNHRC resolution.
    The best course of action would be to move US(which is yet to assume charge)into taking this issue up.No point in relying on India as it has the Moral Right to talk on Human Rights any more with this single act.

  • fdimul said:

    It is not 20,000 who were killed but it is more than 1,75,000 people killed starting from December 2008.

  • fdimul said:

    In the last stages the Srilankan Army killed about 75,000 people.