War crimes in Sri Lanka and political options for Australia
Why is no one in the international community doing anything decisive to meet the challenges to human rights and humanitarian law from the bloody end to Sri Lanka’s civil war? asks Jake Lynch, director, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney.
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Why is no one in the international community doing anything decisive to meet the challenges to human rights and humanitarian law from the bloody end to Sri Lanka’s civil war?
A preliminary report by a UN panel of experts supported claims that up to 40,000 civilians were massacred by the Sri Lankan army. Grave allegations are outstanding against the defeated Tamil Tigers as well, in particular their use of civilians as “human shields”.
But the main Tiger leaders are dead: killed as they tried to surrender, it is said; while leaders on the government side are still in office, maintaining, until this week, that “zero civilian casualties” were inflicted in the war’s final phase.
That line has now changed — according to a defence ministry inquiry, non-combatants perished, but only by accident, because “it was impossible in a battle of this magnitude … for civilian casualties to be avoided”.
The report dwells on “numerous precautions” taken to avoid such an outcome, notably the creation of “safe corridors and no-fire zones”. But a documentary produced by Channel Four TV in the UK, and screened here on ABC’s Four Corners, showed compelling visual evidence that, when it came to the crunch, the Sri Lankan army ignored such provisions, and pounded away regardless.
And there, for the moment, it rests, because there has still not been the independent, international investigation recommended by the UN panel. The Australian Senate unanimously backed a Greens motion calling for the allegations to be “investigated and verified” — something that, the Defence Ministry whitewash confirms, can only be credibly carried out if the Sri Lankan government is not in charge of investigating its own conduct.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is unwilling to order an investigation, wanting the Security Council to take the initiative, but influential members — notably Russia and China of the “permanent 5” — are apparently reluctant. Other countries have not brought the issue into the open, however, so opposition comes at zero cost in terms of diplomatic capital.
This is one opening for Australia, currently campaigning for a Security Council seat. Why not build in to our bid a promise to pursue the unresolved issues from Sri Lanka’s civil war, which go to the heart of international humanitarian law and the responsibility of governments to protect their citizens?
Before that, the issue will be in our face when the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting comes to Perth, in late October. The Millbrook Commonwealth Action Program, adopted at the CHOGM of 1995, commits member states to uphold a set of values including the “rule of law”, and to consider sanctions against violators including suspension from the Councils of the Commonwealth.
It’s intended as an opportunity to mend errant ways, and have full privileges restored. Pakistan did so, and came in from the cold, whereas Fiji did not, and its case was then taken to the next level, suspension from the Commonwealth altogether. Canberra should be planning for a motion on the interim step, at least, against Sri Lanka, to be discussed and voted on when its President, Mahinda Rajapakse, turns up in WA.
This needs to be part of a strategy to encourage serious steps to a sustainable peace with justice. The carrots and sticks wielded by the Commonwealth may appear puny, but, if the war crimes evidence is properly investigated, then the onus would be on the Security Council to instruct the International Criminal Court to issue arrest warrants.
Along with targeted sanctions, these steps would send a clear message — there is a way for Sri Lanka to rejoin the family of nations, but on strict conditions. Number one: stop the repression of the Tamils, and engage in serious dialogue, without preconditions, about radical political reforms.
Local elections last week confirmed that, while the Tigers are no more, the desire to run their own affairs — whatever form that takes — is undimmed. The Tamil National Alliance defied intimidation, and inducements to vote for government stooges, to sweep the board in the country’s north-east.
Colombo’s answer is repression. Following the election results, a senior journalist on a Jaffna newspaper, which editorialised in support of the TNA, was left for dead after being beaten with iron rods by two unidentified men while on his way home from the office: a trademark “deniable” attack by the security forces.
Sanctions, suspensions and ICC indictments need to be put in place, and remain there unless and until the rights and freedoms of the Tamils are guaranteed, in a new political settlement, brokered with international assistance. Then — and only then — will Sri Lankan leaders be welcome in the conclaves of global governance.