US Govt Report Adds to Pressure for Sri Lanka War Crimes Probe

The U.S. State Department released a report Thursday detailing possible violations of the laws of war in Sri Lanka during the first half of 2009, adding to pressure for an independent, international investigation into alleged atrocities committed by government forces and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatists.

"The government of Sri Lanka has said that they are determined to establish a reconciliation process with the people of the north, but we believe strongly that a very important part of any reconciliation process is accountability," said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly.

"This report lays out some concerns that we have about how this military operation was conducted," Kelly said.

The report was welcomed by civil society groups and NGOs who have sought to call attention to war crimes committed against civilians during the recent violent conflict in Sri Lanka from January to May 2009.

"The U.S. State Department report should dispel any doubts that serious abuses were committed during the conflict’s final months," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Given Sri Lanka’s complete failure to investigate possible war crimes, the only hope for justice is an independent, international investigation."

The State Department Office of War Crimes Issues’ report focuses on crimes committed during the final months of the 26-year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.

The fighting resulted in the final defeat of the LTTE, but reports have emerged of child recruitment by the insurgent group, LTTE and government attacks on civilian populations, killing of captives by the government, disappearances conducted by the government or government supported paramilitary forces, and shortages of food, clean water and medicine for civilians trapped in the war zones.

The report was submitted in accordance with the 2009 Supplemental Appropriations Act, which directed the secretary of state to submit a report "detailing incidents during the recent conflicts in Sri Lanka that may constitute violations of international humanitarian law or crimes against humanity, and, to the extent practicable, identifying the parties responsible."

The act also instructed the U.S. government to cut off financial support to Sri Lanka, except for basic humanitarian aid, until the Sri Lankan government respected the rights of internally displaced persons, accounted for persons detained during the fighting, allowed humanitarian organizations and the media access into affected areas, and implemented policies to promote reconciliation and justice.

The LTTE has been listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. since 1997, but the report focuses on incidents occurring from January 2009, when fighting intensified as government and LTTE separatists waged their final battle.

"This report compiles alleged incidents that transpired in the final stages of the war, which may constitute violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) or crimes against humanity and related harms," said the report.

"The report does not reach legal conclusions as to whether the incidents described herein actually constitute violations of IHL, crimes against humanity or other violations of international law. Nor does it reach conclusions concerning whether the alleged incidents detailed herein actually occurred," it added.

The report specifically addresses a number of incidents.

According to reports, during the final months of the civil war, the LTTE took male and female children as young as 12 to fight as soldiers.

Sri Lankan sources have stated that, despite denials from the Sri Lankan military, the government was shelling the no-fire zone and targeting hospitals.

The report details alleged incidents in which the government of Sri Lanka shelled civilian populations before a cease-fire — imposed to give civilian populations time to move to safety — had expired and incidents in which the LTTE prevented the escape of displaced persons and used them as "human shields".

"The Sri Lankan government cannot get away with hiding what it did to civilians during the war," Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for HRW, told IPS. "And this report helps to show that. It compiles all of the information out there about what happened and it turns out there’s a lot of sources."

"If their goal was to win the war and not allow the world to see what was happening to civilian caught in the crossfire then they failed," Malinowski went on to say.

The State Department also discusses reports of the killing of captives or combatants seeking to surrender by the Sri Lankan government and disappearances of Tamil civilians by Sri Lankan government forces or government supported paramilitaries.

The report details instances of severe food shortages, malnutrition, surgeries performed without anesthetic, and significant shortage of support for internally displaced persons even though the government pledged to provide sufficient food, medicine and clean water.

"Human Rights Watch’s own research into the fighting found that both sides repeatedly violated the laws of war," said HRW. "The LTTE used civilians as human shields, employed lethal force to prevent civilians from fleeing to safety, and deployed their forces in densely populated civilian areas. Government forces indiscriminately shelled densely populated areas, including hospitals. Both parties’ disregard for civilian life resulted in thousands of civilian casualties."

The Sri Lankan government prevented outside observers, media and NGOs from accessing the war zone so reports of war crimes committed by the government and LTTE are limited.

Human rights groups have complained that the Sri Lankan government has failed to take appropriate action to investigate the allegations of war crimes committed earlier in the year.

"In the absence of any domestic steps to investigate these terrible offences there does need to be, in our view, an international inquiry," said Malinowski.

According to the U.N., the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people since 1983.

(Inter Press Service)