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Tragedy of US policy on Sri Lanka’s war crimes

[TamilNet, Tuesday, 27 December 2011 10:07 No Comment]

M_Id_202330_Robert_BlakeFront The Obama Administration has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to human rights and dignity and rule of law and has largely delivered on its promise — most notably in the context of the Arab Spring. Tragically, it has failed dismally in the case of Sri Lanka, with catastrophic consequences (a) to the many tens of thousands of Tamil civilians killed whom the US knowingly failed to protect, under Blake architected policy on Sri Lanka, during and after the war; (b) to the credibility of US commitment to universal human rights, democracy and rule of law, and to justice and national reconciliation in Sri Lanka; and (c) to the integrity of international human rights and humanitarian law.

The UN Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka ( April 2011) found credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both sides, in the final six months of the war, in which up to 40,000 Tamil civilians had been killed, mostly by indiscriminate shelling of civilians, including hospitals, in Government declared "safe zones."

A British TV documentary produced by Channel Four called “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” contains horrific evidence in support of the UN Panel’s allegations, and widespread use of sexual abuse and rape by soldiers. The State Department has remained silent, even on the executions frames, which have been determined to be authentic by two UN Rapporteurs of extra judicial killings Failed US Policy on Sri Lanka.

The failure of US policy on Sri Lanka was largely due to a succession of unprecedented actions, centering largely in the State Department, first, the US policy of silence about ongoing mass atrocities and the complicity of topmost Sri Lankan leadership (some of whom are US citizens/ permanent residents), and, second, the subsequent failure of US policy on accountability and the continuation of serious violations in the nearly three years since the end of the war.

The US has repeatedly affirmed its position that “accountability and reconciliation are irretrievably linked." However, accountability was severely constrained by a series of actions by the US. These included the rejection of the UN Panel’s recommendation for the immediate establishment of an international mechanism to investigate the alleged crimes during the war and to monitor the government’s post war policies, and US insistence that Sri Lanka should have primary responsibility to investigate its own alleged crimes, according to international standards, but with no time limit.

US focus on accountability only on alleged crimes during the war, also enabled Sri Lanka to engage in a wide range of serious post war violations in the former conflict areas in the North East, virtually without being called to account.

The post war violations have been reported by many credible sources.—including the State Department Human Rights bureau, the UN Expert Panel, the International Crisis Group, UN Rapporteurs on Torture and Extrajudicial Killings, and in November by the UN Committee. The State Department has remained largely silent on these reports.

LLRC Report and the collapse of accountability

The almost universally foreseen failure of US policy on accountability is now complete —with the failure of the recently published report of Sri Lanka’s own inquiry – the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to meet criteria for LLRC agreed by Ambassador Susan Rice in March 2010—especially that LLRC “would fully investigate serious allegations of violations” and "identify those responsible and make appropriate recommendations based on its findings.”

The comment by the International Crisis Group is typical—“The LLRC fails in a crucial task – providing the thorough and independent investigation of alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law that the UN and other partners of Sri Lanka have been asking for. It is now incumbent on the international community, through the UN Human Rights Council, to establish an independent international investigation in 2012.”

Unfortunately, on December 19, the State Department spokesperson, while acknowledging the failure of the LLRC to investigate the allegation violations, added that “it is better for Sri Lankans to take these issues themselves and address them fully," and for the US to concentrate on an " action plan" or "road map" for the implementation of LLRC’s “substantive recommendations in the areas of reconciliation, devolution of authority, demilitarization, rule of law, media freedom, disappearances, human rights violations."

The State Department’s statement has finally ended its pretence of commitment to accountability, and also sought to reverse the policy on accountability which has been endorsed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and by Ambassador Susan Rice, and by many members of Congress.

While Tamils welcome some of the positive recommendations of the LLRC, they are disappointed at the failure of the State Department statement to recognize that the recommendations are mostly general and not backed by specific and concrete actions. It also fails to mention the long trail of unmet promises by Sri Lankan governments—including the failure of the LLRC itself, and also of Government’s failure to meet other promises made in the UN Human Rights Council Resolution of May 2009.

It also fails to recognize that Sri Lanka had not implemented the interim recommendations of the LLRC made in September 2010. (Tamil National Alliance response of September 13 to Sri Lanka’s statement at the UN Human Rights Council meeting in September 2011.

The State Department and sexual abuse and rape by security forces The flawed policy of the US is best illustrated by the State Department’s actions about the pervasive use of sexual abuse and rape by security forces.

A wikileak cable from the Ambassador Blake, as early as 2007, described the systematic use of sexual abuse and rape (and killings, disappearances etc) by security forces and their paramilitaries  with the complicity "on various levels" of Government leadership, in the conflict areas of North East.

However, Blake dismissed the information as “no smoking gun", thereby abandoning the victims to their horrible fate for many years. Excerpts from the wikileaks document that illustrates Blake’s knowledge of the complicity of Colombo on allowing prostitution as a tool of war follow:

  • “Karuna operates prostitution rings out of internally displaced peoples camps to “take care” of government soldiers … women have no choice but to acquiesce”;

  • Devananda “works in concert with Sri Lankan army to operate Tamil prostitution rings for the soldiers .. young women were taken and forced to have sex with between five and ten soldiers a night."

Paramilitary leaders Karuna and Devanada are now Ministers in the Government of Sri Lanka.

Mr. Blake also cannot be unaware of the over 100 Sri Lankan soldiers serving with the UN Peace Keeping force in Haiti who were sent home because of charges of sexual abuse, including minors.   Yet, in 2009, the State Department, with Mr.Blake as Assistant Secretary for South Asia sought to shield the Rajapakse Government  from the charge of using sexual abuse and rape as a tool of war that Sri Lanka made by Secretary Hillary Clinton at the UN—when calling for support for one of her priorities, i.e.,  stronger international protection for women caught in conflict.

In response to Government protests, the State Department promptly assured  the Government that "from 2006 to 2009, we had not received reports that rape and sexual abuse were used as tools of war in Sri Lanka."

The State Department also excluded mention of sexual abuse and rape in its report to the Congress in October 2009 on "Incidents in the recent conflict in Sri Lanka," and has been virtually silent on the issue, even though abuse of Tamil women by Sri Lankan security forces, who are almost 100% Sinhalese, has been a prominent feature during the final stage of the war and afterwards. – as discussed in the December 20, 2011 statement of the International Crisis Group — “Sri Lanka Women’s insecurity in the North and East –( December 20, 2011)

A spokesperson for Tamils Against Genocide (TAG), a US-based activist group that seeks legal redress to Tamil victims affected by war, said, "TAG is aware of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s particular concern about the use of sexual violence and rape in conflict situations. We appeal to her to look into the incidences of this most heinous violation by Sri Lankan security forces, which was confirmed by Ambassador Blake in chilling detail as early as May 2007, and the extraordinary actions of State Department actions to shield the Sri Lankan Government.

"Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Rice have already made a critical contribution to accountability through the creation of the UN Panel of experts, and the transmission of its report to UN Human Rights Council.

"TAG appeals to them now to lead an international effort, just as they did in the cases of Libya and Syria, to have the UN Human Rights Council at its next meeting in March 2012, promptly activate the recommendations of the UN Panel."

PDF: WikiLeaks: Robert Blake, 18 May 2007

Besides Blake, other US State Department officials who can have an impact on US policy on Sri Lanka are the legal counsel, Harold Koh, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, Maria Otero, and Ambassador-at-Large for war crimes issues, Stephen Rapp.

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