The three-year feud between the Sri Lankan government and international rights groups came under global spotlight for the second time in a week on March 14 when in a report launched in Geneva, Amnesty International said dozens of people in Sri Lanka have been abducted and tortured by security forces since 2009, and hundreds are being held in illegal detention without contact to the outside world.
Among those detained are suspected members of the vanquished Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers, but also lawyers, journalists and human rights activists, said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director.
He added that if Sri Lanka fails to investigate and prosecute those suspected of abuses, other countries could pursue them using a principle known as universal jurisdiction.
“We’ve seen a number of those cases brought against senior Sri Lankan officials. I would expect those cases to follow those people for the rest of their lives,” he warned the Sri Lankan government.
The Amnesty report was released as the Unite Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) prepares to vote next week on a US-backed draft resolution calling for accountability in Sri Lanka.
On March 7, the United States presented a draft resolution against Sri Lanka to the UNHRC at its ongoing session in Geneva calling on Sri Lanka’s government to “take concerted actions on the ground to foster national reconciliation and accountability” as a follow up to its 2009 defeat of rebel Tamil group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
“The draft will be discussed on March 22-23, when the UNHRC will consider all the draft resolutions tabled at the current session,” Roland Gomez, public information officer at the Geneva office of UNHRC, told Asia360 News.
The draft acknowledges and stresses on the need to implement the recommendations of Sri Lankan government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), set up to probe the conflict years in Sri Lanka. But, it also expresses concern over the fact that the report does not sufficiently address serious allegations of violations of international humanitarian law.
Rights activists have long dismissed the LLRC for falling far short of international standards and process as falling short of a full inquiry.
Reacting sharply, and predictably, the Sri Lankan Attorney-General challenged the premise and necessity of the draft, which he has rejected and refused to have a dialogue on.
Members of the Sri Lankan delegation have already met diplomats from several countries and received support from countries- China, Russia and Pakistan as well as from African states, the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) and the members of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Sri Lanka has asserted that the majority of the international community supports its efforts and it maintains that functioning domestic machinery should not be circumvented by external interference until it reaches a justifiable conclusion.
Many countries like India, where the issue is a politically sensitive matter owing to a large Tamil population in its southern state of Tamil Nadu, have indeed stressed that they oppose country-specific resolution and that the text will have no effect without the consent of the concerned country.
On the other hand, Denmark, France, the UK, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Switzerland, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Norway, among many other nations, supported the US initiative, calling it timely and necessary.
Rights groups see the US resolution as a chance for the UNHRC to redeem itself for failing to condemn Sri Lanka in May 2009, when it held an urgent meeting to examine reports of atrocities committed by government and Tamil Tiger forces.
“This draft resolution essentially is the international community saying that Sri Lanka has done too little, too late,” said Juliette de Rivero, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch.
Compounding matters further for Sri Lanka, the Amnesty report and the US resolution were followed by the screening on March 14 of a documentary by Britain’s Channel 4 television, which alleges that several war crimes suspects are now in senior government posts.
The documentary features four cases of alleged war crimes committed by government forces. They include an attack on a food distribution station set up by the United Nations for Tamil civilians; the blocking of humanitarian supplies to refugees fleeing the fighting; the shelling of a designated “no-fire zone;” and – subject of worldwide censure – the execution of Balachandran, the 12-year-old son of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
A previous video report (“Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”) by the channel based on gruesome footage appearing to show summary executions and other abuses drew widespread global condemnation and provoked a furious response from the Sri Lankan government two years ago.
While the timing of the Amnesty report and the Channel4 documentary may be suspect, such accounts of the alleged war crimes have frequently surfaced over the past three years, thereby keeping the horror of the long civil war alive and raw.
As per UN estimate, 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed during the 26-year war, about half of those in the final months of the conflict itself. When the government failed to keep its promise to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in May 2009 to investigate allegations of wartime abuses, Ban, in June 2010, established a panel of experts to advise him.
In April 2011, the panel of experts submitted its report. It found “credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law was committed” by both sides of the conflict.
The LTTE leadership is not there to face the charges. And the Sri Lankan government has refused to accept the report.
The success or failure of the present US resolution at the UNHRC depends not so much on the merit of the issue, but on a country’s diplomatic ability to line up friends and allies, in support of or against the resolution. By that measure, Sri Lanka could yet come out of its ordeal laughing.
But the Sri Lankans are aware that the issue did not die in 2009 when it had scored a victory in a similar situation. And it may not die even after another victory at next week’s voting. On the contrary, the global spotlight on the issue through various reports and accounts may add to the shrill in the future.