A formal UN investigation into what it says are "credible allegations" the Sri Lankan authorities may have committed war crimes will only proceed if the government in Colombo agrees to an inquiry or if member states call for one, the UN Secretary-General has said. Both scenarios are highly unlikely, which means claims Sri Lankan troops systematically shelled "no-fire zones" and hospitals and were responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians are unlikely to be addressed.
Two weeks after the findings of a three-member panel into the final stages of a military operation against Tamil rebels was handed to the Sri Lankan government and leaked to the media, the UN officially made public the report. Among the recommendations of the panel appointed by Ban Ki-moon was the immediate establishment of an independent international inquiry into allegations both Sri Lankan troops and Tamil rebels may have committed crimes against humanity.
But in a move which has surprised human rights campaigners, the Secretary-General has said he has been told such a course of action is not possible. A covering letter accompanying the report, said: "In regard to the recommendation that he establish an international investigation, the Secretary-General is advised that this will require host country consent or a decision from member states through an appropriate intergovernmental forum." While the statement was not specific, such international forums could include the Security Council, the UN General Assembly or the Human Rights Council.
"By requesting a report from a panel of experts and making it public, Ban Ki-moon has taken a crucial step towards justice for the thousands of civilians who suffered abuses by the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tigers during the war," said Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch. "Ban should now follow the panel's advice and set up an independent international mechanism that will investigate alleged violations. It should name names and lay the groundwork for international prosecutions."
The Sri Lankan authorities have repeatedly dismissed the report's findings and the legitimacy of the panel that looked into the final stages of the war to crush the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), successfully concluded in May 2009. Yesterday, a senior Sri Lankan official again rejected the report's conclusions. "We don't consider this report an official UN report. It is a personal report," Lakshman Hulugalle, a senior security official, told Reuters. "We totally reject it. If officially asked by the UN Security Council or any of the UN bodies, the government has enough evidence and material to provide."
Given Mr Ban's comments, it is now unclear what will happen to the recommendations of the panel. Last year, under international pressure, the government in Sri Lanka did appoint what it termed a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The UN report said this body did not meet international standards.
The report makes clear the allegations of crimes against humanity should be addressed to the highest offices in Sri Lanka. "If proven, those most responsible, including Sri Lanka army commanders and senior government officials, as well as military and civilian LTTE leaders, would bear criminal liability for international crimes," it says.
The report also raises questions about the actions of the UN in the final stages of the military operation. At the time, UN sources in Sri Lanka estimated the civilian death toll might have reached 8,000, but a decision was taken at a very senior level of the organisation not to make these assessments public, partly because it was worried UN staff might lose access to the war zone. The panel's report now suggests the death toll may have been much higher. "Two years after the end of the war there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources indicate that a range of up to 40,000 cannot be ruled out," says the report. "Only a proper investigation can lead to identification of all of the victims and to the formulation of an accurate number of civilian deaths."
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