UN seeks Sri Lanka war crimes trial with international involvement

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Sri Lanka should agree to a tribunal of domestic and international judges to bring closure to its civil war, the UN human rights office said in a report released Wednesday that found strong evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

There were strong indications that both Sri Lanka government forces and Tamil rebels committed such serious crimes, according to the document, which is the first comprehensive UN report on the conflict.

The 26-year civil war ended when government troops defeated Tamil separatist rebels in 2009, but the UN report said serious violations took place in the entire period from 2002 to 2011, which it was tasked to investigate under a UN Human Rights Council mandate.

As many as 40,000 civilians were killed in the final stages of the conflict, according to previous UN estimates.

“Our investigation has laid bare the horrific level of violations and abuses that occurred in Sri Lanka, including indiscriminate shelling, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, harrowing accounts of torture and sexual violence, recruitment of children and other grave crimes,” said Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights.

Zeid said that a “hybrid special court” should address these crimes, by including international judges, prosecutors and investigators.

The UN rights chief commended the new national unity government of President Maithripala Sirisena for pursuing accountability for these crimes through a domestic process, but pointed out that “Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system is not yet ready” to handle the crimes.

The new report documented a long history of denial, cover-ups and reprisals against those who seek justice in Sri Lanka.

“A purely domestic court procedure will have no chance of overcoming widespread and justifiable suspicions fuelled by decades of violations, malpractice and broken promises,” Zeid said.

Sri Lanka’s government welcomed the report but issued no direct response to the call for a hybrid court.

The government would now hold a broad dialogue with various national stakeholders as well as international organizations to “facilitate the right to know, right to justice, reparations and guaranteeing non-recurrence,” it said in a letter to the UN human rights office.

A key Tamil minority party reacted to the UN report with disappointment and caution.

“The proposal to have a ‘hybrid’ court falls short of our expectations that the war crimes should be probed by an international court without any involvement of the Sri Lankans,” Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader Suresh Premachandran told dpa.

Premachandran noted the process could be influenced with Sri Lanka’s involvement, and that domestic laws do not sufficiently protect witnesses.

Zeid’s recommendations include allowing a permanent UN human rights presence in the country, removing alleged human rights violators from public office and developing a reparations policy.

In addition, he called for returning of military-occupied land to private owners, disarming militias and clearing up the fate of victims of forced disappearance.

“We believe unless impunity is ended and there is a reckoning of the past … the fear is that they may well lapse,” Zeid said.

The government promised that these recommendations would receive due attention by existing authorities and new bodies, without clarifying whether it meant a planned domestic truth and reconciliation mechanism or the court proposed by the UN.

The opposition National Freedom Front, representing the majority Sinhala community, said it would campaign against implementation of any of the UN’s proposals, characterizing them as attempts at outside interference.

The UN report showed how security forces assassinated Tamil politicians, aid workers and journalists, while rebels targeted officials, academics and dissenting Tamil political figures. Both sides also killed ordinary civilians, it said.

“One of the most disturbing findings,” the document said, “has been the extent to which sexual violence was committed, often extremely brutally, by the Sri Lanka security forces.”

The UN found that such violations were part of a deliberate torture policy, with men and women equally likely to become victims.

In addition, the report said that tens of thousands of Sri Lankans had been affected by enforced disappearances in past decades.

While Zeid acknowledged that the Colombo government had struck a more constructive tone since the president’s election in January, he criticized that authorities had continued to block access to victims, decision-makers and documents.

UN investigators relied instead on numerous accounts by international bodies, non-governmental groups and exiled witnesses.

The new report does not contain any names of suspects, leaving it to a subsequent criminal process to determine who was responsible.

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