Sri Lanka: UN report calls for war crimes trials

Extrajudicial execution by Sri Lankan army.

The United Nations' Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report of its investigation into human rights violations in Sri Lanka found “reasonable grounds to believe that gross violations of international human rights law … were committed.”

The investigation deals with the period between February 2002 and November 2011. It thus includes the final years of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The LTTE fought for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka and was defeated in May 2009.

Summarising its findings, the report says there are “reasonable grounds to believe that gross violations of international human rights law, serious violations of international humanitarian law and international crimes were committed by all parties during the period under investigation.

“Indeed, if established before a court of law, many of these allegations may amount … to war crimes … and/or crimes against humanity.”

The investigation found that there are “reasonable grounds to believe” that Sri Lankan government forces carried out widespread killings of civilians, arbitrary arrests, abductions and forced disappearances, torture, rape and sexual violence, bombardment of hospitals in LTTE-controlled areas, bombardment of civilians in areas declared as “no-fire zones”, the denial of food and medicine to civilians, and the detention of displaced people in closed camps for long periods.

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Allegations against the LTTE include killing civilians perceived as hostile to the LTTE, causing civilian casualties through indiscriminate suicide bombings and mine attacks, recruiting children (defined as people under 18) as LTTE fighters, and preventing civilians from leaving LTTE-controlled areas.

The report recommends that the Sri Lankan government establish an “ad hoc hybrid special court, integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators, mandated to try war crimes and crimes against humanity”.

This special court is considered needed due to the inadequacy of the Sri Lankan legal system to deal with such cases. The report refers to “the past failure of the Government of Sri Lanka to address accountability for the most serious human rights violations and crimes”. It says accountability “will require more than a domestic mechanism”.

The OHCHR report says there have been improvements in the human rights situation in Sri Lanka under the new government elected this year, but acknowledges ongoing serious problems.

It says that since January, “there has been a significant opening of space for freedom of expression, at least in Colombo, although reports of surveillance, interference and harassment of human rights defenders continued to be received from the district level”.

The report also says that “the structures and institutional cultures that created the repressive environment of the past remain in place”. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) remains in force. There are still 258 detainees acknowledged by the government, but there are also reports of “secret and unacknowledged places of detention”.

People continue to be arrested under the PTA, even under the new government. Nineteen people are reported to have been arrested under the PTA between January and August, of whom 12 remain in detention.

The report also says that “torture and sexual violence remain a critical concern”. It notes six reported cases of torture since the change of government.

Some Tamils have welcomed the proposal for a “hybrid court”. Others are sceptical that any court set up by the Sri Lankan government, even with international participation, can bring justice.

In any case, the Sri Lankan government is unlikely to set up such a court. It has always rejected any outside involvement in investigating human rights violations.

Many Tamils are campaigning for Sri Lanka to be taken before the International Criminal Court.