Leading article: Sri Lankan war crimes must be prosecuted

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The Independent Online

The Government of Sri Lanka is contesting a report by the United Nations which reveals that tens of thousands of civilians died in its final offensive to end the country's civil war two years ago. Most of them were killed by government shelling which targeted hospitals and UN and Red Cross centres, a UN panel of experts has found. The acts were war crimes, the report says. It is not a one-sided document. It also says that the Tamil Tiger rebels used 330,000 civilians as human shields, and shot those who tried to escape. But both sides contest its findings. The government insists it can prove it never targeted civilians. The rebels claim that the last-minute truce the government offered was not long enough to allow civilians to safely leave the conflict zone.

There is a simple way to resolve this. The international authorities should lay charges against both sides, before an international war crimes tribunal, to answer what the UN calls "credible allegations". The problem is that the UN Security Council lacks the required resolve. Members including Russia are backing Sri Lanka and accusing the UN Secretary General of having exceeded his powers in setting up the three-member panel that spent 10 months gathering evidence – without the help of the government in Colombo, which refused to allow the investigators into Sri Lanka. Indeed the government pressed the UN not to publish the report, claiming it would damage reconciliation efforts.

There are allegations against both sides and a proper hearing of them would lead to the kind of purgation which is the precursor of political healing. Last year the Sri Lankan government appointed its own commission to look back at the war. But human rights groups have rightly expressed scepticism about the independence of the commission.

The UN is to carry out a review of its own actions in a conflict during which, the report says, it did not make public the high casualty figures it was receiving. That might have put more pressure on Colombo to exercise restraint. Yet if the authorities in Colombo are certain of their innocence they should have nothing to fear from answering these allegations at the bar of an international court.