US report tarnishes Sri Lanka victory By Eli Clifton
WASHINGTON - A United States State Department report detailing possible
violations of the laws of war in Sri Lanka during the first half of 2009 is
adding to pressure for an independent, international investigation into alleged
atrocities committed by government forces and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
"The government of Sri Lanka has said that they are determined to establish a
reconciliation process with the people of the north, but we believe strongly
that a very important part of any reconciliation process is accountability,"
said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly. "This report lays out some concerns
that we have about how this military operation was conducted."
The report released earlier this month was welcomed by civil society groups and
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that
have sought to call attention to alleged war crimes committed against civilians
during the recent conflict in Sri Lanka from January to May 2009.
"The US State Department report should dispel any doubts that serious abuses
were committed during the conflict's final months," said Brad Adams, Asia
director at Human Rights Watch. "Given Sri Lanka's complete failure to
investigate possible war crimes, the only hope for justice is an independent,
The State Department Office of War Crimes Issues' report focuses on crimes
committed during the last months of the 26-year civil war between the Sri
Lankan government and the LTTE, which ended with the final defeat of the
insurgent group. Reports have emerged of child recruitment by the LTTE,
government attacks on civilian populations, killing of captives by the
government, disappearances conducted by the government or government supported
paramilitary forces, and shortages of food, clean water and medicine for
civilians trapped in the war zones.
The report was submitted in accordance with the 2009 Supplemental
Appropriations Act, which directed the secretary of state to submit a report
"detailing incidents during the recent conflicts in Sri Lanka that may
constitute violations of international humanitarian law or crimes against
humanity, and, to the extent practicable, identifying the parties responsible".
The act also instructed the US government to cut off financial support to Sri
Lanka, except for basic humanitarian aid, until the island's government
respected the rights of internally displaced persons, accounted for persons
detained during the fighting, allowed humanitarian organizations and the media
access into affected areas, and implemented policies to promote reconciliation
and justice. The US is Sri Lanka's most important trading partner, accounting
for more than a quarter of the island nation's exports, and is a major provider
of assistance, giving US$23.4 million in direct aid in 2007, according the
Britain's Guardian newspaper.
The LTTE has been listed as a terrorist organization by the US since 1997, but
the report focuses on incidents occurring from January 2009, when fighting
intensified as government and LTTE separatists waged their final battle.
"This report compiles alleged incidents that transpired in the final stages of
the war, which may constitute violations of international humanitarian law
[IHL] or crimes against humanity and related harms," said the report.
"The report does not reach legal conclusions as to whether the incidents
described herein actually constitute violations of IHL, crimes against humanity
or other violations of international law. Nor does it reach conclusions
concerning whether the alleged incidents detailed herein actually occurred," it
The report specifically addresses a number of incidents.
According to reports, the LTTE took male and female children as young as 12 to
fight as soldiers during the final months of the civil war. Sri Lankan sources
have stated that, despite denials from the Sri Lankan military, the government
was shelling a no-fire zone and targeting hospitals.
The report details alleged incidents in which the government of Sri Lanka
shelled civilian populations before a ceasefire, imposed to give civilian
populations time to move to safety, had expired and incidents in which the LTTE
prevented the escape of displaced persons and used them as "human shields".
"The Sri Lankan government cannot get away with hiding what it did to civilians
during the war," Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for HRW, told
Inter Press Service. "This report helps to show that. It compiles all of the
information out there about what happened and it turns out there's a lot of
sources ... If their goal was to win the war and not allow the world to see
what was happening to civilian caught in the crossfire, then they failed."
The State Department also discusses reports of the killing of captives or
combatants seeking to surrender by the Sri Lankan government and disappearances
of Tamil civilians by government forces or government-supported paramilitaries.
The report details instances of severe food shortages, malnutrition, surgeries
performed without anaesthetic, and significant shortage of support for
internally displaced persons even though the government pledged to provide
sufficient food, medicine and clean water.
"Human Rights Watch's own research into the fighting found that both sides
repeatedly violated the laws of war," said HRW. "The LTTE used civilians as
human shields, employed lethal force to prevent civilians from fleeing to
safety, and deployed their forces in densely populated civilian areas.
Government forces indiscriminately shelled densely populated areas, including
hospitals. Both parties' disregard for civilian life resulted in thousands of
The Sri Lankan government prevented outside observers, media and NGOs from
accessing the war zone, so reports of war crimes committed by the government
and LTTE are limited.
Human-rights groups have complained that the Sri Lankan government has failed
to take appropriate action to investigate the allegations of war crimes
committed earlier in the year.
"In the absence of any domestic steps to investigate these terrible offences
there does need to be, in our view, an international inquiry," said Malinowski.
According to the United Nations, the conflict between the Sri Lankan government
and the LTTE killed between 80,000 and 100,000 people since 1983.
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced on Monday that a domestic
probe will be launched to investigate the US State Department's allegations,
reported Reuters. Colombo had already rejected the report as unsubstantiated.