Sri Lanka: UN says army shelling killed civilians

 
Aerial view of section of abandoned camp in former conflict zone on the Sir Lanka's north-eastern coast (file image from 23 May 2009) Many thousands of Tamil people were displaced over the final months of fighting in 2009

Tens of thousands of civilians died in the final phase of Sri Lanka's civil war - most of them killed in shelling by government forces, a UN panel says.

In a report on possible war crimes in the last months of the war in 2009, the panel also says Tamil Tiger rebels used civilians as human shields.

It wants an independent international investigation into "credible" reports of atrocities committed on both sides.

Sri Lanka's government has rejected the findings as biased.

It denies that tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the months leading up to the victory over the rebels, who had fought for 26 years for an independent homeland for minority Tamils.

'Credible allegations'

The highly controversial document was the result of a 10-month process of gathering evidence by the three-member panel, which was not allowed into Sri Lanka.

Analysis

Human Rights Watch disputes Ban Ki-moon's assessment that he lacks authority to personally order an international probe into possible war crimes in Sri Lanka, as recommended by the panel.

Whatever the case, he's been walking a fine line between pressure to investigate from the international human rights community, and pressure not to from Sri Lanka and Security Council members such as Russia, which accuses him of overstepping his remit by intervening at all.

It's true the Security Council has recently been more proactive in the name of human rights, authorising military intervention in Libya to protect civilians. But it's much more divided on Sri Lanka.

The UN Human Rights Council has also shown support for Sri Lanka. It's unclear whether it will take up the panel's recommendation to revisit a resolution that congratulated Colombo for ending the war, rather than calling for an investigation into mass civilian casualties.

Their report paints a brutal image of the final offensive on the rebel-held enclave in northern Sri Lanka between January and May 2009.

It said that hospitals, UN centres and ships belonging to international aid group the Red Cross were deliberately shelled by government forces.

"Tens of thousands lost their lives from January to May 2009, many of whom died anonymously in the carnage of the final few days," said the panel, which was headed by a former Indonesian attorney general.

"Most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling," the report added.

It describes prisoners being shot in the head and women raped, while the Tamil Tiger rebels (LTTE) used 330,000 civilians as human shields, and shot those who tried to escape.

The UN experts said there were "credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international rights law was committed both by the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity".

It urged the government to issue a formal and public recognition of its responsibility for the extensive civilian casualties in the final stages of the conflict.

MAIN ALLEGATIONS

  • Civilian deaths: The UN says tens of thousands of civilians were killed, mostly by Sri Lankan army shelling. It also says Tamil Tiger rebels used civilians as human shields.
  • Conduct of war: The government is accused of shelling hospitals and UN centres. The Tigers are accused of forcible conscription, including of children.
  • Extra-judicial killings: It says that prisoners were summarily shot and accuses rebels of killing civilians who tried to escape.

Sri Lanka had asked the UN not to publish the report, saying it could damage reconciliation efforts.

"The Sri Lankan army is not responsible and [the] Sri Lankan government is not responsible," government spokesman Lakshman Hulugalle told the BBC.

"We never shelled or we never bombed. We never targeted innocent civilians. It's a wrong allegation and we can prove it," he said.

'A matter of transparency'

The panel also recommended that the Sri Lankan government should respond to the serious allegations "by initiating an effective accountability process beginning with genuine investigations" which would meet international standards.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he could not launch an international investigation into war crimes allegations unless the Sri Lankan government agreed, or member states called for it.

But the BBC's Barbara Plett, in New York, says that the country continues to have strong allies on both the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council.

In 2010 Sri Lanka appointed its own commission mandated to look back at the war and learn lessons from the conflict, but human rights groups have expressed scepticism about the independence of the commission.

In January 2010, less than a year after the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels, Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa was re-elected by a substantial majority on a wave of unprecedented support following the government's victory over the rebels.

However, the UN will carry out a review of its own actions during the conflict. The report criticises UN officials for not pressing the Sri Lankan government hard enough to exercise restraint and for not going public with high casualty figures which, it says, would have put more pressure on the government.

In a statement, the secretary general's spokesperson said: "The decision to release the report was made as a matter of transparency and in the broader public interest."

A history of the Sri Lankan conflict

He said a copy of the report had been made available "in its entirety" to the government of Sri Lanka on 12 April, adding that the government had failed to respond to a repeated offer to publish its response to the panel's finding alongside the report.

Our correspondent says that a divided Security Council was initially reluctant to address Sri Lanka's war and much less call for an inquiry.

But the secretary general appointed the panel after mounting evidence of serious human rights abuses and massive civilian casualties in the five-month offensive which ended the war.

 

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  • rate this
    +20

    Comment number 183.

    As usual all the government and it's supporters see no distinction between the LTTE and Tamil people. And as usual the Tamil people suffer the oppression and the massacres in deathly silence. Speaking against the government does not mean speaking for the LTTE. War criminals are still war criminals regardless of the righteousness of their war.

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 162.

    The Sinhalese and successive Sri Lankan governments wants to subjugate Tamils and make them pay if they don't yield. Be in no doubt the North and East of the country is under brutal military occupation. Tamils in Sri Lanka have no safety, freedom, respect, dignity or equal opportunity. The Sinhalese are jubilant they won the war but the Tamils can’t even grieve their dead in fear of reprisals.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 147.

    Didn't anyone tell the UN of 1.) the innocent children who were sent to war in their school uniforms who are now been rehabilitated by the very same SL Army they fought against? 2) about the elected Tamil representatives who were eliminated by the so called liberators only because they wanted a peaceful solution to the ethnic problem as against the violent methods of the so called liberators.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 132.

    I hope the UN makes a good, justice decision.
    I hope the Tamil Tigers do not need to re-form in order to finish the job the UN have been assigned and trusted to do.
    Ofcourse, it would not end nicely either way for President Rajapaksa. I wonder how he gets sleep at night.

  • rate this
    -7

    Comment number 120.

    War has finished & the country is having a good start... If so many crimes were committed, wouldn't all the people have said something against such a thing?

    If no one within speaks of such heinous crimes even still, does that mean that the UN report is trying to say that the people of Sri Lanka (of all ethnic groups) are a people who support wrongful acts against their own people?!....

 

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