(MintPress) – In the closing months of the war to claim the secessionist state of Tamil Eelam, the remains of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were on the run with roughly 400,000 Tamil refugees. Unbeknownst to them, they were being herded into a corner in northeastern Sri Lanka. To the world, the Sri Lankan government was dealing with a threat to their national security, fighting the “international war on terror” — as espoused by president Mahinda Rajapaksa. International peacekeepers left the Sri Lankan government to clean up its own mess, international leaders lent their support and the world’s media stopped reporting.
But, looks can be deceiving.
In the next four months, in excess of 40,000 civilians would be killed in the government’s targeting of “no-fire” zones and hospitals. Local, critical journalists would be murdered or made to disappear. The Tamil Tigers and everyone associated with the Tamil Tigers would be eradicated, so went the mantra of the Sinhalese government.
Now, after the release of the documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” and after hard questions about what actually happened were asked, those charged to avoid this humanitarian nightmare must now answer for their lack of action.
Wednesday, United Nations’ secretary-general Ban Ki-moon issued a report admitting to its failure to protect civilians during the Sri Lankan civil war:
“The UN can face significant challenges in retaining the essential support of a Government to help in delivering assistance while at the same time responding to serious violations of international law that may require the UN to issue criticism of the same Government. In the case of Sri Lanka, a number of UNCT and UNHQ senior staff perceived these challenges as dilemmas or as conflicting responsibilities…Decisions at UNHQ and in the field were affected by an institutional culture of trade-offs. The tendency to see options for action in terms of dilemmas frequently obscured the reality of UN responsibilities. In fact, with its multiplicity of mandates and areas of expertise, the UN possessed the capabilities to simultaneously strive for humanitarian access while also robustly condemning the perpetrators of killings of civilians.”
The secretary-general said that lessons had to be learned in regards to how to prevent major system breakdowns, like the Sri Lankan event, which constitute a “grave failure.”
The Sri Lankan government and the Tamil rebels have both been indicted for war crimes in regards to the conflict. The war — which lasted 26 years — left at least 100,000 people dead. A previous U.N. investigation approximated the death-count for the final months of the war in excess of 40,000. The Sri Lankan government place the tally at 9,000.
The magnitude of the oversight
As reported on Channel 4 News, “Fernando,” an operative with the Sri Lankan 58 Division, spoke of the horrors he witnessed inflicted by governmental forces during the final months of the war:
“When I look at it as an outsider I think they’re simply brutal beasts. Their hearts are like that of animals, with no sense of humanity…They shoot people at random, stab people, rape them, cut their tongues out, cut women’s breasts off. I have witnessed all this with my own eyes. I have seen small children laying dead…I saw a lot of small children, who were so innocent, getting killed in large numbers. A large number of elders were also killed…They were shooting when a large number of civilians were crossing through a lagoon, including women and children. The soldiers were shooting at them. They were not Tiger cadres, just normal civilians. So yes, I saw normal civilians getting killed with my own eyes…I saw a family, a mother and three children. This small family was fleeing. As we were about to take them, one of the children was shot in the leg. The child fell. I carried that child with these hands. The mother was screaming….When they were at the hospital, one day I saw a group of six soldiers raping a young Tamil girl. I saw this with my own eyes…For the soldiers at the battlefront, their hearts had turned to stone. Having seen blood, killings and death for so long, they had lost their sense of humanity. I would say they had turned into vampires.”
According to “Fernando,” the Sri Lankan government systematically executed and mass buried nearly 50,000 Tamil civilians. The Sri Lankan government is denying this claim.
As stated by Amnesty International, the U.N.’s failure to adequately police the situation in Sri lanka “… sets a dangerous precedent, sending the message that states which, like Sri Lanka, have not ratified the Rome Statute are beyond the reach of international justice and that crimes committed in the name of “combating terrorism” can simply be ignored.”
On Nov. 14, 2012, Mr. Ban released the following in a press release:
“… In 2010, following an agreement with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, I established a Panel of Experts to advise me on measures to advance accountability.
“The Panel of Experts report raised a number of significant issues, including those regarding the United Nations response to the terrible situation facing civilians in the north of Sri Lanka. The Panel recommended “a comprehensive review of action by the United Nations system during the war in Sri Lanka and the aftermath, regarding the implementation of its humanitarian and protection mandates”.
“I, therefore, established a new Panel to do just that. The Panel, headed by Charles Petrie, has now completed its eight-month study. This morning, Mr. Petrie briefed me on the report’s findings and recommendations. The report concludes that the United Nations system failed to meet its responsibilities, highlighting, in particular, the roles played by the Secretariat, the agencies and programmes of the United Nations country team, and the members of the Security Council and Human Rights Council.
“This finding has profound implications for our work across the world, and I am determined that the United Nations draws the appropriate lessons and does its utmost to earn the confidence of the world’s people, especially those caught in conflict who look to the Organization for help …”
For a while, support from the international community — particularly, buoying from the U.N. Security Council and cheerleading from the United States and India — backed the Sri Lankan government’s actions against the Tamil Tigers, particularly after the Tamil rebels broke the ceasefire agreement in 2005. However, no one seriously doubted the reports filed by the Sri Lankan government in regards to the close of the civil war until the British documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” aired on BBC. Filmed by foreign correspondents in secret, the evidence presented — including the summary execution of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his 12-year-old son and video footage of dead bodies displaying bullet wounds suggesting close-range or execution-style firings — challenges the official line.
The United States is currently supporting a motion to the United Nations Human Rights Council that will demand Sri Lanka properly investigate war crimes accusation committed by both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government. India is non-committal at this time, despite uproars from Tamil-supporters in parliament demanding answers. The Indian National Army was a major supporter of the Sri Lankan government efforts against the Tamil Tigers. Currently, the U.S. restricts military aid to Sri Lanka by legislation in regards to lack of progress regarding accountability and human rights.
The Tamil Tigers is not blameless; during the final months of the war, the LTTE used thousands of civilians as “human shields” to protect vital installations and personnel. However, this does not excuse governmental abuses during or after the war.
According to Human Rights Watch, Lal Wickrematunge, chair of the Sunday Leader, received a phone call from Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa in response to an article Wickrematunge published on high-level corruption. The president told Wickremantunge, “You are writing lies, outrageous lies! You can attack me politically, but if you attack me personally, I will know how to attack you personally too.” Wickrematunge’s brother was gunned down in 2009. Gnanasundaram Kuhanathan, an editor of a Jaffna-based newspaper, was beaten with iron bars and hospitalized. Radio Netherlands journalists were threatened by the police, robbed and attacked at gunpoint. Thousands of the original 11,000 LTTE members detained during the war remains in detention. These prisoners have been denied due process guarantees, such as access to counsel. Many of those released continue to receive harrassment from security forces at home.
What exactly is a ‘Tamil Tiger,’ anyway?
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is a separatist and secessionist military organization formed to create a separate, independent homeland for the Tamil people. The enforcement of the Sinhala Only Act, which recognized Sinhala as the only official language of the government, troubled the Tamil populace of the island. Even though the Federal Party chose to use satyagraha (non-violent resistance) to overcome the bill, the law’s presence caused noticeable tears between Tamil and Sinhala leadership. Affirmative action activity in the 1970s toward enabling geographically disadvantaged students to get a higher education dropped the number of university seats available to Tamil students, stroking ethnic tensions. The decrease in the number of students in school gave rise to an expansion of the military, and the Tamil Tigers were born. Alfred Duraiyappah, the mayor of Jaffna, was the Tigers’ first assassination.
From 1983, sporadic insurgency fighting was initiated by the LTTE towards the Sri Lankan government. The situation was exaggerated when the Indian government gave arms and training to the Tigers. Fighting continued until a Norwegian-mediated ceasefire was signed in 2002.
The Tamil people were seeking an independent territory on the island, as the Sinhalese government has taken to using legislation to discriminate against the Tamils. It was the Sinhalese majority’s refusal to accept the Tamil request that led to civil war. The ceasefire was broken in August 2006 amidst shelling from both sides. The Sri Lankan Northern Offensive forced the final defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009.
It is now known that during this offensive, the Sri Lankan Army committed activities that would be classified as war crimes, including the deliberate shelling of hospitals, the deprivation of medical supplies and food to those suffering in the conflict zone and the nondiscretionary killing of civilians, including civilians used by the LTTE as human shields. It is now also known that the Sri Lankan government deliberately covered up the number of casualties occurred.