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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > South Asia > Sri Lanka > War Crimes in Sri Lanka

War Crimes in Sri Lanka

Asia Report N°191 17 May 2010

Click here to read this report in Sinhala (PDF)

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

The Sri Lankan security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) repeatedly violated international humanitarian law during the last five months of their 30-year civil war. Although both sides committed atrocities throughout the many years of conflict, the scale and nature of violations particularly worsened from January 2009 to the government’s declaration of victory in May. Evidence gathered by the International Crisis Group suggests that these months saw tens of thousands of Tamil civilian men, women, children and the elderly killed, countless more wounded, and hundreds of thousands deprived of adequate food and medical care, resulting in more deaths.

This evidence also provides reasonable grounds to believe the Sri Lankan security forces committed war crimes with top government and military leaders potentially responsible. There is evidence of war crimes committed by the LTTE and its leaders as well, but most of them were killed and will never face justice. An international inquiry into alleged crimes is essential given the absence of political will or capacity for genuine domestic investigations, the need for an accounting to address the grievances that drive conflict in Sri Lanka, and the potential of other governments adopting the Sri Lankan model of counter-insurgency in their own internal conflicts.

Crisis Group possesses credible evidence that is sufficient to warrant an independent international investigation of the following allegations:

  • The intentional shelling of civilians. Starting in late January, the government and security forces encouraged hundreds of thousands of civilians to move into ever smaller government-declared No Fire Zones (NFZs) and then subjected them to repeated and increasingly intense artillery and mortar barrages and other fire. This continued through May despite the government and security forces knowing the size and location of the civilian population and scale of civilian casualties.
  • The intentional shelling of hospitals. The security forces shelled hospitals and makeshift medical centres – many overflowing with the wounded and sick – on multiple occasions even though they knew of their precise locations and functions. During these incidents, medical staff, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and others continually informed the government and security forces of the shelling, yet they continued to strike medical facilities through May forcing civilians to abandon them.
  • The intentional shelling of humanitarian operations. Despite knowing the exact location of humanitarian operations and food distribution points, the security forces repeatedly shelled these areas, which were crowded with humanitarian workers, vehicles and supplies, and civilians. Many were killed or wounded trying to deliver or receive basic humanitarian assistance, including women, children and infants.

The consequences of the security forces’ shelling were made substantially worse by the government’s obstruction of food and medical treatment for the civilian population, including by knowingly claiming the civilian population was less than one third its actual size and denying adequate supplies.

The government declined to respond to Crisis Group’s request for comment on these allegations.

There is also strong evidence that the LTTE engaged in:

  • The intentional shooting of civilians. The LTTE fired on and killed or wounded many civilians in the conflict zone who were attempting to flee the shelling and cross into government-controlled areas.
  • The intentional infliction of suffering on civilians. The LTTE refused to allow civilians to leave the conflict zone, despite grave danger from shelling and lack of humanitarian supplies, even when the civilians were injured and dying. The LTTE also forcibly recruited many civilians to fight or serve as labourers and beat some family members who protested the recruitment.

The substantial body of evidence collected by Crisis Group since August 2009 offers a compelling case for investigation of the conduct of hostilities and the role of the military and political leadership on both sides. It consists of numerous eyewitness statements that Crisis Group has taken and considers to be reliable as well as hundreds of photographs, video, satellite images, electronic communications and documents from multiple credible sources. But it covers only a small number of the violations allegedly committed and is but a first step in what should be a major effort to examine the last year of the war. Among the other allegations that should be investigated are the recruitment of children by the LTTE and the execution by the security forces of those who had laid down their arms and were trying to surrender.

Much of the international community turned a blind eye to the violations when they were happening. Some issued statements calling for restraint but took no action as the government continually denied any wrongdoing. Many countries had declared the LTTE terrorists and welcomed their defeat. They encouraged the government’s tough response while failing to press for political reforms to address Tamil grievances or for any improvement in human rights. The eventual destruction of the LTTE militarily came at the cost of immense civilian suffering and an acute challenge to the laws of war. It also undermined the credibility of the United Nations and further entrenched a bitterness among Tamils in Sri Lanka and elsewhere which may make a durable peace elusive. Now a number of other countries are considering “the Sri Lankan option” – unrestrained military action, refusal to negotiate, disregard for humanitarian issues – as a way to deal with insurgencies and other violent groups.

To recover from this damage, there must be a concerted effort to investigate alleged war crimes by both sides and prosecute those responsible. Sri Lanka is not a member state of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the UN Security Council is not likely to refer these crimes to the ICC in the short term. While some of the LTTE may go on trial in Sri Lanka, it is virtually impossible that any domestic investigation into the government or security forces would be impartial given the entrenched culture of impunity. A UN-mandated international inquiry should be the priority, and those countries that have jurisdiction over alleged crimes – including countries such as the U.S. where dual nationals or residents may be suspected – should vigorously pursue investigations.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To the Government of Sri Lanka:

1. Cooperate fully with international efforts to investigate alleged war crimes, including a UN-mandated international inquiry, guaranteeing free access to the conflict area and effective protection of witnesses.

2. Try LTTE cadres suspected of war crimes in open court, allowing them and witnesses against them full protections required by international law and permitting international oversight, or release them if there is insufficient evidence.

3. Invite the UN special rapporteurs on extrajudicial executions, torture, violence against women, the right to food, the right to health, the protection of human rights while countering terrorism and the situation of human rights defenders, and the special representatives on the human rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and on children and armed conflict, to visit Sri Lanka to investigate the conduct of the last year of hostilities.

4. Compile, with the assistance of the ICRC and/or the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a full and public register of those killed, wounded and missing from the final months of the war, including the circumstances of their death, injury or disappearance; and issue death certificates and provide financial compensation for civilians killed or wounded and for property destroyed or damaged.

5. Provide ICRC with full access to all places of detention, including where LTTE suspects or surrendees are being held, and allow detained individuals full protections under international law.

To the United Nations and Member States:

6. Authorise an independent international inquiry into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka during the last year of the conflict, tasking it to investigate the conduct of both sides, to complete its work within a reasonably short period and to recommend steps to be taken by national and international authorities to ensure accountability for any crimes.

7. Begin inquiries into attacks on UN assets and personnel and into the conduct of the UN during the last year of the conflict, examining the UN’s September 2008 withdrawal from Kilinochchi through to its ineffectual attempts to push for a ceasefire and its involvement in Sri Lankan government internment camps.

8. Empower the special rapporteurs on extrajudicial executions, torture, violence against women, the right to food, the right to health, the protection of human rights while countering terrorism and the situation of human rights defenders, and the special representative on the human rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), to carry out full investigations of the conduct of the last year of hostilities, particularly into alleged extrajudicial executions and torture, and the special representative on children and armed conflict to more completely investigate the recruitment of child soldiers and killing and maiming of children.

9. Make available to any credible efforts to investigate alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka all relevant information within the possession or control of the UN.

10. Ensure that Sri Lankan contributions to UN peacekeeping missions are consistent with universal human rights principles, including by ensuring the systematic pre-deployment screening of Sri Lankan personnel to identify any individuals allegedly involved in war crimes or human rights violations.

To India, the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Other EU Member States, Switzerland and Others:

11. Do not extradite LTTE suspects to Sri Lanka unless guarantees of humane treatment and fair trials are in place. Instead prosecute in domestic courts where possible and appropriate.

12. Begin investigations into alleged war crimes or human rights abuses in cases where jurisdiction may exist, including where nationals or residents are allegedly involved. Ensure such investigations have sufficient resources and share evidence in the possession or control of governments, including satellite imagery.

13. Support non-frivolous civil suits by or on behalf of alleged victims of the security forces or the LTTE, including by limiting claims of immunity.

14. Grant asylum or other protected status to witnesses and act to preserve evidence of war crimes, particularly by allowing officials to cooperate with credible investigations.

15. Impose targeted sanctions, including travel restrictions, on Sri Lankan officials and members of their families, unless and until the government cooperates with international efforts to investigate alleged war crimes.

Brussels, 17 May 2010

 
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English

Sinhala Translation

This report is also available in Sinhala. Click here to download the translated version (PDF).

Video Update

Louise Arbour

Louise Arbour, President and CEO of Crisis Group, on the report "War Crimes in Sri Lanka" and the Sri Lankan government's response to the report thus far. (25 May 2010)

Watch here

Multimedia Presentation

Crisis Group has also created an interactive online presentation to accompany the report, with maps, photos and video detailing the final five months of the conflict. Click here to view the presentation.