Even as attention is riveted on the bloodshed in Syria, another conflict, far more deadly, is belatedly attracting the notice it deserves.
Beginning this week, the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva has returned to an issue that has haunted it since 2009 — the bloody finish to Sri Lanka’s civil war. That conflict ended on a stretch of beach in the country’s northeast, as the remaining fighters of the Tamil Tigers and tens of thousands of traumatized civilians were surrounded by and surrendered to the Sri Lankan Army.
Sri Lankans and many abroad rejoiced at the defeat of a force that had routinely deployed terrorist tactics. But even as the government’s military campaign was under way, it became clear that the cost in civilian lives from its attacks on the Tigers was enormous. Right after the war, the Human Rights Council, to the shock of many observers, passed a resolution praising Sri Lanka’s conduct of the war. Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, promised Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the time that he would address the question of accountability for violations against civilians.
When, a year later, the government had done nothing to carry out Rajapaksa’s commitment, the secretary general asked the three of us to study the allegations of atrocities during the last stages of the war and Sri Lanka’s response. In our report, we found credible evidence that both sides had systematically flouted the laws of war, leading to as many as 40,000 deaths — many multiples more than caused by the strife in Libya or Syria.
The bulk of that total was attributable to deliberate, indiscriminate, or disproportionate governmental attacks on civilians, through massive shelling and aerial bombardment, including on clearly marked hospitals.
Rather than tackling these allegations head-on through a truth commission or criminal investigations, Sri Lanka created a “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission,” whose mandate, composition and methods all cast serious doubt on its willingness to uncover what really happened in those fateful months.
When the commission issued its final report last November, it ignored or played down our report’s conclusions and characterized civilian deaths as stemming from the army’s response to Tamil Tiger shelling or cross-fire — as sporadic, exceptional and mostly inevitable in the heat of battle.
When it came time to proposing next steps for the government, it called for investigations by the same entities — the army and the attorney general — who have a track record of ignoring governmental abuses for decades.
The report had some welcome elements, too. It recognized some of the root causes of the war, as well as the responsibility of both the government and Tigers for civilian casualties. And it endorsed our view that Sri Lanka had a duty to provide truth, justice and reparations to victims; release detainees; and protect the state’s besieged journalists.
Yet the fact is that numerous recommendations of prior commissions of inquiry have not been implemented by the government.
The Human Rights Council’s members are currently looking at a draft resolution, circulating at the initiative of the United States, to demand action from Sri Lanka on uncovering the truth and achieving some real accountability. The United States deserves a great deal of credit for trying to get the council to move on this issue. It is time for the council to correct its embarrassing decision from 2009.
Yet such a demand is not enough. Given Sri Lanka’s unwillingness to take concrete steps, the best way to get to the truth is for the council to create an independent investigative body to determine the facts and identify those responsible, as we recommended in our report.