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Sri Lankans must not suffer in silenceDavid Miliband & Bernard Kouchner Special to Salem-News.com
How were up to 100k civilians killed right under the nose of the world?
(NEW DELHI) - In April 2009, we travelled together as foreign ministers to Sri Lanka, as 25 years of fighting between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers neared its end. The remaining fighters were trapped in the northern-most part of the country â€” along with large numbers of civilians. UN estimates put the numbers of civilians there in the last few months of the war at over 300,000.
Our purpose was simple: to draw attention to the human suffering, to call for humanitarian aid and workers to be allowed in and to call for the fighting to stop. We visited refugee camps that had been created to house Tamil refugees from Jaffna. Their stories were brutal and shocking. Random shelling in areas of fighting â€” including after the government had announced an end to fighting. Men and boys taken away from refugee camps â€” and now out of contact. Tamil life treated as fourth or fifth class. If foreign policy is about anything, it should be about stopping this kind of inhumanity.
When we met Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse, we argued that his government had legal obligations to its people, whatever the heinous tactics of the Tamil Tigers. We also urged a recognition that to win peace, President Rajapakse needed to reach out to Tamil minorities to make real the constitutional pledges of equal treatment for all Sri Lankans. Restrictions on journalism meant that there was a war without witness in Sri Lanka. But in March 2009 the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, visited Sri Lanka and wrenched from President Rajapakse a commitment to independent investigation of alleged human rights abuses.
The agreement was subsequently denied by the President, but in 2010 the Secretary-General set up his own independent Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka. The damning report, compiled by three leading and independent figures, was published on March 31, 2011.
It reports that tens of thousands of people lost their lives in the space of three months at the beginning of 2009, most as a result of government shelling. The government shelled on a large scale in three no-fire zones. It shelled the UN hub and food distribution lines. Meanwhile, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, refused civilians permission to leave, using them as hostages and shooting point blank those who attempted to escape.
The panel of experts found credible allegations of serious violations of international law by the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, some of which amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. It says that the conduct of the war represented a â€śgrave assault on the entire regime of international lawâ€ť. It says the Sri Lankan governmentâ€™s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission fails standards of impartiality and independence, is flawed and does not satisfy the joint commitment of the Sri Lankan President and the UN Secretary-General to an accountability process.
The report constitutes a serious test for the Sri Lankan government. Will it realise the error of brushing wrongdoing under the carpet? Will it recognise that the continued detentions under â€śstate of emergencyâ€ť laws undermine Sri Lankaâ€™s claims to a normal place in the international community? Will it recognise that the continued failure to resettle Tamils in an equitable way and give them economic opportunities as well as social rights is a dangerous cancer at the heart of Sri Lankaâ€™s future? But the report is also a test for the UN system and the wider world community. In 2005 the UN unanimously embraced the doctrine of â€śresponsibility to protectâ€ť. It must not be honoured in the breach rather than in the observance.
The UN report calls for the Secretary-General to take further action, including establishing an independent, international mechanism to monitor Sri Lankaâ€™s reconciliation efforts and to conduct independent investigations into alleged violations. It seems to us essential that this process is taken forward. As the report says, accountability is a duty under domestic and international law, and those responsible, including Sri Lanka Army commanders and senior government officials, would bear criminal liability for international crimes.
The integrity of the international system in addressing human rights abuses is rightly under scrutiny as never before. And when peaceful, diplomatic initiatives to hold accountable those who abuse human rights run into the sand, they only fuel the arguments of those who want to take the law into their own hands. So this decision about the handling of this report matters for Sri Lanka but it also matters more widely.
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that the international community cannot be selective in its approach to upholding the rule of law. We therefore call on our governments to set a deadline, soon, for satisfactory response from the Sri Lankan government, and, if it is not forthcoming, to initiate the international arrangements recommended by the report.
Reports like the one compiled for the UN Secretary-General must not stand on the shelf. They must be the basis of action. Or the law becomes an ass.
Originally published by Deccan Chronicle
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