Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sri Lanka Tamil killings 'ordered from the top'

By Jonathan Miller - a senior Sri Lankan army commander and frontline soldier tell Channel 4 News that point-blank executions of Tamils at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war were carried out under orders.

In August 2009 Channel 4 News obtained video evidence, later authenticated by the United Nations, purporting to show point-blank executions of Tamils by uniformed Sri Lankan soldiers.

Now a senior army commander and a frontline soldier have told Channel 4 News that such killings were indeed ordered from the top.

One frontline soldier said: "Yes, our commander ordered us to kill everyone. We killed everyone."

And a senior Sri Lankan army commander said: "Definitely, the order would have been to kill everybody and finish them off.

"I don't think we wanted to keep any hardcore elements, so they were done away with. It is clear that such orders were, in fact, received from the top."

Despite allegations of war crimes, Sri Lanka's government has managed to avoid an independent inquiry. But the evidence continues to mount.

'Body blows to humanitarian law'

So decisive was Sri Lanka's victory over the Tamil Tigers last year that other nations facing violent insurgencies are now citing the "Sri Lanka option" as a model for crushing rebellion, writes Channel 4 News foreign reporter Jonathan Miller.

International lawyers, human rights and conflict prevention groups are alarmed, accusing the Colombo government of riding roughshod over international law.

Last night Louise Arbour, a former chief prosecutor in international war crimes trials, told an audience at Chatham House – the foreign policy think tank – that "the [Sri Lankan] government's refusal to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants" and the "sheer magnitude of civilian death and suffering" dealt what she called "the most serious of body blows to international humanitarian law".

Now, the International Crisis Group, of which Ms Arbour is the president, has joined forces with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to demand an independent international investigation into what they brand "massive human rights violations" and "repeated violations of international law" – by both sides.

The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly rejected the charges of civilian deaths as grossly exaggerated and has denied that any of its security forces have committed war crimes or violated international humanitarian law.

Ms Arbour appeared live on Channel 4 News to outline options available to the international community to prevent the "Sri Lanka option" gaining currency. A new ICG report entitled War Crimes in Sri Lanka defines this option as "unrestrained military action, refusal to negotiate, disregard for humanitarian issues, keeping out international observers including press and humanitarian workers".

Ms Arbour also responded to dramatic new evidence contained in a film broadcast by Channel 4 News. The fresh evidence, detailing extremely serious allegations of possible war crimes, has been gathered in an extended undercover investigation in Sri Lanka. Testimony from soldiers interviewed by Channel 4 News corroborates persistent allegations aired by this programme since the end of the war a year ago.

Chief among these: the accusation that Sri Lankan soldiers were responsible for extrajudicial executions - as graphically illustrated by the disturbing video we aired last August. The video – long dismissed as a fake by the government in Colombo – was authenticated by the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions in January this year.

The clamour from international rights groups for an impartial investigation into alleged atrocities contrasts sharply with the failure of the UN to demand accountability from the Sri Lankan government. Last year, the Sri Lankan president promised the UN Secretary General that he would look into the question of accountability.

On Monday President Mahinda Rajapaksa named an eight-member panel to glean lessons learned from the war. But members of the group say they have no legal power to investigate alleged abuses. "If this is 'it'," Louise Arbour said last night, "there's no reason to expect from the government's past record that it's got any intention to investigate or put in place an appropriate accountability mechanism."

The UN Human Rights Council seems to provide little hope of investigating war crimes, having congratulated the Sri Lankan government on its victory, within days of the war ending.

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council holds out no hope at all. The Sri Lankan issue has failed to force its way onto the UNSC agenda – and were it to do so, China and Russia would likely stand in the way of any unlikely referral to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

The secretary general has also so far failed to appoint international experts to investigate – as he's previously promised he might.

Amnesty and the ICG have taken the UN to task for its failure to act decisively to push for accountability. Crisis Group went so far as to recommend that the UN should open an inquiry into its own conduct in Sri Lanka. Last night Louise Arbour – herself a former UN human rights commissioner – talked of the UN's "silence – verging on complicity" with the Rajapaksa regime.

In January 2009, as the final chapter opened in the 30-year-long Sri Lankan civil war, I was in Gaza, picking over the humanitarian disaster left after Israel's three-week war there. Between 1,200 and 1,400 civilians were killed during the aerial bombardments and subsequent ground offensive. In the final weeks of the Sri Lankan government offensive on the "no-fire zone", Ms Arbour believes a figure of 30,000 civilian deaths "is not implausible".

Within months of the Gaza conflict, the UN Human Rights Council had dispatched Judge Richard Goldstone to investigate possible war crimes. He produced a damning report.

There has been no investigation in Sri Lanka. Local journalists who've raised their heads above the parapet have been jailed or disappeared or killed. The UN has done nothing concrete in moving towards an impartial inquiry. There has been no Goldstone in Colombo. Even the UN rapporteur for extrajudicial executions has been denied a visa for the past four years.

You can kind of see why the "Sri Lankan Option" might just catch on.

© Channel 4

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sri Lanka: A fragile peace

By Matt Wade - In the dying days of Sri Lanka's civil war, the army liked to show off the military hardware it had captured from the retreating Tamil Tigers. During carefully managed tours of the front line, foreign journalists were shown long, neat rows of Kalashnikovs, missiles, landmines and artillery cannon seized from the rebels.

A Tamil Tiger battle tank was the most impressive trophy, the most chilling a small wardrobe of suicide jackets. Photographs found with dead rebels were also on display. Some showed proud young cadres standing with the reclusive Tamil Tiger supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran. One fighter's album had a printed card commemorating Prabhakaran's 54th birthday in November 2008, just six months before the end of the war.

The weaponry and personal memorabilia were a testament the formidable military force Prabhakaran had at his disposal. He once controlled a third of Sri Lanka, thanks to his huge arsenal and devoted guerillas.

But exactly one year ago, the battlefield resistance crumbled after nearly 30 years of fighting, and Prabhakaran was shot dead. The images of his body on television sparked spontaneous celebrations and marked the end of an era in Sri Lanka.

"Without Prabhakaran, the Tamil Tigers disappeared like pricking a balloon," says Gordon Weiss, an Australian who recently stepped down as the UN's spokesman in Sri Lanka.

But a year after the guns fell silent, Sri Lanka's ethnic divisions remain deep and many questions raised by the war are still unanswered. One of them is what happened in those horrific final months of conflict when almost 300,000 Tamil civilians were sandwiched between the rebels and advancing Government troops. Because the Sri Lankan military didn't allow independent journalists and most humanitarian workers near the war zone, the claims and counter claims made by both sides during that last phase of fighting could not be verified, especially those concerning civilian casualties.

An investigative report by the International Crisis Group released to coincide with the anniversary of the war's end says "tens of thousands" of civilians died in the last five months of the war and blames the military's bombardment for most of the deaths.

The ICG calls for an independent, international war crimes probe and warns that the failure to properly investigate the final stages of the war could threaten the country's long-term stability.

"Sri Lanka's peace will remain fragile so long as the many credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by senior government and LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] leaders are not subject to impartial investigation," it says.

"The truth of what happened during the course of the war, especially in its last months, must be established if Tamils and Sinhalese are to live as equal citizens."

The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly rejected calls for an international investigation. It claims civilians were never deliberately targeted and blames the Tamil Tigers for the casualties.

"Some people desperately keep on scratching that old wound so that it stays open," says Sri Lanka's ambassador to the United Nations, Palitha Kohona.

"Instead of helping us to heal the wounds and move forward, they suffer from a one-size-fits-all approach to international conflict … at this stage what Sri Lanka needs is the space, and the assistance, to develop economically."

Colombo has established its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to recommend ways to ensure there is no "recurrence" of ethnic conflict and to decide if "any person, group or institution directly or indirectly bears responsibility" for it.

Sri Lanka's powerful President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is under little domestic pressure to pick over the war's bloody climax. A wave of support from Sri Lanka's ethnic Sinhalese majority has made Rajapaksa even more dominant now than when he declared victory over the Tamil Tigers a year ago.

He won a thumping victory in presidential elections in January over his main rival, the former military chief, Sarath Fonseka. Soon after his failed bid to dethrone Rajapaksa, General Fonseka was arrested and remains in detention facing court martial. Rajapaksa subsequently led his governing coalition to victory in parliamentary polls last month.

But the exultant President has not yet answered another fundamental question posed by the war's end: will he introduce significant reforms to try to deal with the ethnic grievances that fuelled Sri Lanka's devastating conflict?

Prabhakaran launched the armed struggle for a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka's north-east in 1983, claiming Tamil people were being discriminated against by Sinhalese-dominated governments in Colombo. Tamils make up 15 per cent of Sri Lanka's population, the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese community about 75 per cent.

The bitter ethnic conflict dominated the island nation's politics and economy for two generations and killed at least 70,000 people. The war effort stunted the economy and drained the government coffers. Indeed, one study found Sri Lanka's economy would be 30 per cent bigger if not for the war.

Rajapaksa's postwar political supremacy means he has a historic opportunity to engineer a political "solution" to try to deal with the nation's ethnic divisions. But there are few signs he is going to take it. Hopes for sweeping political reforms that respond to the aspirations of Sri Lanka's minorities are fading.

"Rajapaksa shows no inclination to initiate any of the reforms needed to address the underlying causes of Sri Lanka's 30 years of ethnic conflict and war, or the damage it has done to the country's liberal and democratic institutions," the International Crisis Group says.

One constitutional change flagged by Rajapaksa is the creation of a "second chamber" of parliament to allow greater representation for Sri Lanka's minorities. However, it is unclear what powers the chamber would have.

Jehan Perera, from the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, says a political solution for Sri Lanka's "Tamil question" has slipped off the national agenda.

"Most people in Sri Lanka are not particularly interested in a political solution," he says. "To the great majority of people in Sri Lanka, the end of the LTTE has meant the end of terrorism and the end of what troubled them and the country. The mood in the country now is that the worst is behind us."

The official postwar rhetoric has focused more on economic progress than political reform. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President's brother, was recently quoted in Sri Lanka's Sunday Times newspaper as saying that he ''sincerely believes priority should be given not to political reforms but to infrastructure development and attending to other basic social needs of the people''.

Sri Lankan officials argue much has been achieved in the past year. "Terrorism has been brought to an end in Sri Lanka, the whole country has breathed a huge sigh of relief and is now ready to take off economically," says Palitha Kohona.

But the government's handing of postwar rehabilitation has come under fire, especially the decision to detain about 280,000 Tamil war refugees in guarded camps for six months after hostilities had ceased. Human rights groups have also raised concerns about thousands of suspected Tamil Tigers kept in custody without access to the courts.

Government officials admit 12,700 former Tamil Tiger combatants are in military detention, but say 8000 to 9000 are not core rebel cadres and will be released after "rehabilitation". The remainder are likely to eventually face formal prosecution.

More than 50,000 Tamils are still living in temporary refugee camps, unable or unwilling to leave. The tens of thousands that have left the camps are struggling to rebuild homes and livelihoods in war-ravaged villages.

The Rudd government, too, has felt the after effects of the Tigers' demise as hundreds of disaffected Tamils sailed for Australia. If conditions for Tamils in the north of Sri Lanka - both economic and political - do not show signs of improvement, more may be tempted to take to boats in

the hope of asylum, regardless of Australia's immigration policy.

Many Tamils are sceptical about the Rajapaksa regime's commitment to reconciliation and political reform. "I'm afraid the way that things are occurring there is not paving the way for reconciliation," says outspoken Tamil MP Mano Ganesan.

"I don't see any signs of political reform. The defeat of terrorism should not have transformed into the defeat of the whole Tamil population, but that's how it's looking now."

Military celebrations to mark the anniversary of the war's end have angered Tamils. "The way in which the celebrations are taking place is failing to take note of the sentiment of the Tamil people," Ganesan says.

Another Tamil parliamentarian from northern Sri Lanka, Sivagnanam Sritharan, said in his maiden speech this month that the army's celebration will "break and destroy" the hearts of Tamils.

"At present, Sinhalese have an attitude that they have conquered the Tamils and the Tamils have an attitude of pain and hate," he said. "A race that subjugates another race cannot live in peace itself. That country too can never achieve liberation."

The size of Sri Lanka's war machine means a return to violent resistance by Tamils is unlikely in the short term. Gotabaya Rajapaksa revealed recently that the country's military swelled to 450,000 by the end of the war - about four times the size of the British army for a country with a population similar to Australia's.

"The Tamils today are a lot weaker than they were 30 years ago when [the war] started," says Jehan Perera. "They could not mount the same challenge to the government that they once did."

However, there is a longer-term risk that conflict could flare again if the aspirations of minorities are ignored. "While the government's security apparatus is powerful and pervasive enough to suppress any rapid re-emergence of violent resistance, it will not be able to do so indefinitely so long as legitimate grievances are not addressed," warns the ICG.

© The Age

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sri Lanka: Flood fear hits Parliament

By Kelum Bandara and Yohan Perera - Parliament sittings were adjourned at 2:00 p.m. yesterday due to bad weather that triggered the threat of flash floods in the area surrounding the parliament complex.

Party leaders unanimously decided to suspend the day’s proceedings since the roads leading to the parliament complex had been submerged by rising waters of the Diyawanna Oya.

Minister Dilan Perera was the first to raise the matter and requested the adjournment of the House.

The Minister told Deputy Speaker Priyankara Jayaratne it would be advisable to adjourn the House as soon as possible as otherwise MPs would find it difficult to leave the parliamentary premises.

“We raised this issue at the party leaders meeting. They agreed to take a decision after taking stock of how things stand. Not only MPs but even parliament employees are facing severe difficulties”, National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa said.

Later, the Deputy Speaker, sought permission from the party leaders to adjourn at 2.00 p.m.

Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena in consultation with Chief Opposition Whip John Amaratunga responded positively to the request.

© Daily Mirror

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

UN accused of ignoring Sri Lankan war crimes

By RFI - As Sri Lanka’s celebration of last year's victory over Tamil Tiger rebels is rained off, a prominent research group accuses the United Nations and other international agencies of turning a blind eye to massacres during the offensive in the north of the island.

Heavy rains have forced the government to postpone indefinitely a parade planned for Thursday to commemorate its declaration of victory on 18 May 2009.

"The government has decided to postpone the war heroes' commemoration ceremony which was due to be held at the War Heroes' Monument at the parliament grounds," the defence ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, a report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) slams the government for human rights violations during the war.

And the ICG accuses the UN and the “international community” of ignoring civilian suffering so as to maintain good relations with Colombo.

"The UN needs to examine its behaviour in the last few months of the war, when it was often more concerned about maintaining its ability to work with the Sri Lankan government than it was for standing up for the values that the UN represents,” says the ICG's Asia Programme Director Robert Templer.

“And this is particularly true in the case of conflict areas where it should side with the important rule of not allowing civilians to be slaughtered. We do feel the UN fell down as an institution in many of these areas."

The UN estimates that about 7,000 civilians were killed during the offensive and has called for an investigation.

The ICG says that during the conflict the UN “too readily complied with the government’s demands to withdraw from conflict areas”.

The ICG also accuses foreign powers of going along with violations of international law because they “welcomed the LTTE’s defeat, regardless of the cost of immense civilian suffering and an acute challenge to the laws of war”.

The government herded 300,000 Tamil civilians into camps towards the end of the war, while there were numerous accusations of troops firing on civilians or preventing them from leaving war-hit areas.

"The evidence that we have shows that there was a deliberate effort to target humanitarian action and hospitals by the Sri Lankan military, and those constitute war crimes under the Rome statute," Templer told RFI.

"We also found that the number of deaths was significantly higher than figures released either by the Sri Lankan government or by the United Nations."

"We also looked at war crimes by the LTTE and found significant abuses of the civilian population by the Tamil Tigers."

General Sarath Fonseka who led the operation against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is in a naval detention cell, awaiting court martial after unsuccessfully challenging president Mahinda Rajapakse in this year’s election.

A new organisation set up by Tamils living abroad, the Global Tamil Forum, is observing Tuesday across the world as a day of remembrance of Tiger fighters and civilians killed in the final phase of fighting.

The Sri Lankan government accuses the forum of being an LTTE front expressed fears that Tiger remnants would try to regroup and rearm with the support of Tamils living abroad.

© Radio France International

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Fighting impunity in Sri Lanka

By Andrew Wander - A year has passed since Sri Lanka declared victory in its long, bloody civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The island nation might be formally united for the first time in decades, but the brutal methods used to win the conflict have cast a shadow over Sri Lanka's new found peace.

A year after the guns fell silent in northern Sri Lanka, human rights groups have issued their strongest call yet for a full and independent inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by both sides during the final months of the conflict.

Evidence of major abuses collected by the International Crisis Group (ICG) and Amnesty International makes for grim reading, with Sri Lankan government forces accused of intentionally shelling civilians, bombing hospitals and food distribution points, and opening fire in declared no-fire zones in its efforts to stamp out the Tamil insurgency.

The human rights groups say that abuses were committed by both sides, but with most of the LTTE leadership dead, it is the Sri Lankan government that has come under most scrutiny for what observers say were clear violations of the laws of war in its final, bloody crackdown on the rebels.

"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," the ICG report says.

"Starting in late January [2009], the government and security forces encouraged hundreds of thousands of civilians to move into ever smaller government-declared no-fire zones and then subjected them to repeated and increasingly intense artillery and mortar barrages and other fire."

Hospital attacks

The organisation has also uncovered reports of hospitals crammed with wounded civilians coming under fire.

"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," the report says.

The Sri Lankan government had no comment on the allegations when contacted by Al Jazeera, but in the past officials have refused to countenance any investigation into the alleged war crimes, claiming to have run a "zero-casualty policy" during the final months of the conflict and insisting that there is no need for an inquiry.

The comments of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's defence secretary, have been typical of the government's response to allegations that it did anything wrong during the war.

"Whether it is the United Nations or any other country, we are not - I am not - allowing any investigations in this country," he said in February. "Nothing wrong happened in this country. Take it from me."

But a compelling counter-narrative of the conflict has emerged that contradicts official version of events and places partial responsibility for the civilian suffering in Sri Lanka on the international community.

International blame

"Much of the international community turned a blind eye to the violations when they were happening. Many countries welcomed the LTTE's defeat regardless of the cost of the immense civilian suffering and acute challenge to the laws of war," the ICG says.

Amnesty International has also been heavily critical of the international community's response to the conflict.

"The UN never revealed what it knew about the final days of conflict, acknowledged the scale of the abuse that took place or pushed for accountability," says Madhu Malhotra, the group's deputy director for the Asia-Pacific region.

Both groups believe that a failure to act undermines the credibility of the international laws governing conflict.

"The scale of civilian deaths and suffering demands a response," says Louise Arbour, the ICG president.

"Future generations will demand to know what happened, and future peace in Sri Lanka requires some measure of justice."

The idea that crimes would go unpunished in Sri Lanka could have encouraged abuses, the groups warn.

"At the end of the war, atrocities against civilians and enemy combatants appeared to be fueled by a sense that there would be no real international consequences for violating the law," Malhotra says.

But the stakes of future inaction could be even higher.

"A number of countries are considering 'the Sri Lankan option' - unrestrained military action, refusal to negotiate, disregard for humanitarian issues, keeping out international observers including the press and humanitarian workers - as a way to deal with insurgencies," the report says.

"There must be a concerted effort to investigate alleged war crimes by both sides and prosecute those responsible."

© Al Jazeera

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sri Lanka: Over 196,000 affected as stormy weather continues to wreak havoc

by Don Asoka Wijewardena - The country will experience more thunderstorms during the next 48 hours in the Western and Sabaragamuwa provinces and in the Galle and Matara Districts in the South.

Disaster Management officials said that in Kalutara, Colombo, Gampaha, Ratnapura, Kegalle, Kurunegala, Galle, Puttalam and Trincomalee around 196,376 people had been affected by the rains and several houses badly damaged. The total number of families affected by the rains in these districts stood at 46,656 as at last afternoon.

Meteorology Department Duty Forecaster Ms. Gayani Hendavitharana said that a strong depression had been developing in the Bay of Bengal and it had intensified into a cyclonic storm moving North West towards India.

She told The Island that in addition to the indirect thundershowers, heavy showers would also spread to the Central Province and some parts of the North Western province. Heavy rainfall and strong winds could be expected at some places, particularly in the South Western region, she said.

She added that the coastal areas would experience strong and gusty winds. Winds that had been blowing across the sea had a speed of 60 km per hour and fishermen have been given bad weather warnings.

Officials added that several main roads and roads in rural areas of the Western, Sabaragamuwa and Southern provinces remain impassable and though the rains have subsided, certain areas are still submerged.

On a Directive of President Mahinda Rajapaksa Rs 2.3 million was released yesterday alone for relief efforts.

Disaster Management officials said that the worst affected district was Colombo, where 21,404 families had been severely affected. The figures for the other districts are: the Kalutara 5,082, Gampaha 18,576, Kurunegala 44, Galle 2,200, Puttalam 100 and Trincomalee 150.

All District Secretaries and Divisional Secretaries have been instructed to provide cooked meals to the affected people.

Each family will be given dry rations to the value of Rs. 245 to Rs. 525 per day for up to one week.

The officials said that necessary arrangements would also be made to estimate the damages and a maximum of Rs. 50,000 would be give for a damaged household and it would be released in three installments. Compensation would be paid for crop loss up to Rs. 20,000.

According to the Disaster Management Ministry, grassroots level public representatives, local government representatives and officers from Divisional Secretariats would be required to combine the immediate, short-term and long-term flood mitigation plans for their respective divisions to be submitted along with the estimates.

© The Island

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