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Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: Documentary and Beyond

June 21, 2011

Photograph: Channel 4

In May 2009 the Sri Lankan Army launched a major offensive to root out Tamil Tigers in the northern and eastern parts of the country. The violent, military secessionist movement of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was launched in northern Sri Lanka in 1976 that gradually turned into a civil conflict and gripped the country in a wave of terror and unrest.

During the course of their armed struggle against the Sri Lankan government, Tamil Tigers had been involved in high profile assassinations including the killing of an Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. They have also been involved in the gross violation of human rights by indiscriminately attacking civilians of Sinhalese ethnicity, Buddhist monks and Muslims. Tamil Tigers received severe criticism for their policy of recruiting children to fight the Sri Lankan forces; there were said to be over 5,000 child troops in their ranks. Tamil Tigers were also believed to be the pioneers of the modern day suicide bombing. The use of concealed explosive belts and vests is attributed to them.

The Cost of Victory

On 17 May 2009, during the last phase of Sri Lankan offensive, the Tamil forces conceded defeat and agreed on negotiation with the Sri Lankan government. The government, clearly tired of twenty-six year of civil war, preferred to seal the separatist movement and eliminated the top leadership of Tamil Tigers.

It is a tragedy of war that victory is always achieved at the expense of civilians. The situation gets even trickier when the armed conflict is between the national military and the insurgent group. The use of civilians as human shields by insurgent groups not only raises confusion about the identity of an armed combatant but it also maximized the civilian casualties.

The recent UN investigative report by the panel of UN Secretary General’s experts and the Channel 4 documentary, backed with ample evidence and eyewitness accounts, allege that both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan forces were involved in war crimes, crimes against humanity and violation of human rights. The Tamil Tigers allegedly used civilians as human buffers and killed those who tried to leave the conflict zone. They were also accused of forced recruitment of child soldiers and forced labor for building fortifications etc.

During an offensive, the Sri Lankan forces set up the “No Fire Zones”, where the displaced civilian population was encouraged to take refuge. The forces violated the norms of international rules of conflict that ensures the civilian immunity and bombed those “No Fire Zones” which resulted in heavy casualties. In addition, the Sri Lankan forces systematically shelled the hospitals denied humanitarian aid such as food and medicine supplies to people in the conflict zone. The UN report states, “[The Government] shelled in spite of its knowledge of the impact, provided by its own intelligence systems and through notification by the United Nations, the ICRC and others. Most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by Government shelling.” (The UN report tentatively calculated around 40,000 civilian causalities as a result of bombing during the conflict).

In the lights of compelling and authenticated proof of atrocities committed against the unarmed Tamil civilians including women, children and elderly, the Sri Lankan government is facing severe criticism for violating the norms of international humanitarian law. The Sri Lankan government, as expected, denied those allegations and challenged the status of the above mentioned UN report by calling it a personal report. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon on the other hand, clarified that a formal investigation can proceed only if the Sri Lankan government agrees to such an inquiry or the member states call for it.

Individual liability

Under international law ( based on Geneva Conventions, the  Rome Statute and statutes of the criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia), individual liability can be imposed on the armed forces personnel and the members of the Sri Lankan government and cadres of Tamil Tigers for their alleged involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity. The war crimes include, violence to life and person (as given in Common Article 3 of Geneva Convention), cruel treatment and torture, rape, and failure to collect and care for the wounded and sick (Source – UN Report).

The concept of individual liability means that individuals and not states should be prosecuted for war crimes. It was first introduced during the Nuremburg trial of Nazi government and military officials for their involvement in the crimes against humanity during the World War II. The Allied forces (Britain, United States, France and Russia) produced staggering documentary evidence that corroborated the Nazi policy of systematic extermination of Jews in Europe.

Prosecution by International Criminal Court

International Criminal Court (established in 2002) can prosecute those involved in the war crimes if they belong to member states. Sri Lanka is not a party to the ICC. However, the ICC may prosecute if Sri Lanka accepts the jurisdiction or the Security Council refers the matter to the ICC. Recently, the Security Council referred the matter of war crimes committed in Libya for investigation to the ICC.

It is understandable that Sri Lanka will not accept the jurisdiction of the ICC as long as the allegations of war crimes are hovering around. Moreover, the Security Council has not expressed any intention of referring the matter either. In a situation like this it seems that the no one will be prosecuted for the alleged violations of human rights.

The French philosopher and author Sartre said, “When the rich make the war, it is the poor who die”. In the recent history we have witnessed glaring examples of war crimes committed in Bosnia, Rwanda, Israel, Darfur and Sri Lanka. While recently, further reports of human rights violations emerged from Libya and Bahrain. Between the clashes of powerful, the poor and helpless suffer. The formation of an International Criminal Court is commendable but at the same time, justice should not be dispensed selectively.

There is a need to address the challenges that bar from an effective and frequent prosecution of the individuals involved in war crimes. The lesson learnt during Sri Lankan offensive was that a vulnerable community should not be left alone and the atrocities should immediately be reported to world so that steps could be taken to prevent huge losses of human lives. Sri Lanka launched its offensive against the Tamil Tigers with confidence as it was declared a terrorist organization by 32 states; however, the world certainly did not mandate the indiscriminate use of force against the unarmed civilians and for that those responsible must be held accountable.

Also available on Chowk

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2011 4:09 pm

    That’s interesting. I wonder, then, that why does Pakistan only make headlines, its people ridiculed and mocked at for being terrorists! This post is a must-read for the self-loathing lot. Who, being as myopic as they come, have nothing positive to say and no insight in the matter at all!

    • June 24, 2011 6:16 pm

      The world, especially the human rights organizations are condemning Sri Lanka as well as Tamil tigers for the war crimes they committed.

      For Pakistan, I’d say we have plethora of our own issues and really serious ones. For example, a video of extrajudicial killing (execution style) by our military of alleged terrorists in Swat was made public last year.

      The idea is that crimes against humanity should be condemned where ever they take place.

  2. September 27, 2011 5:07 pm

    Sri lianka people and army destroyed terrorism by Tamil tigers with the sole support of Pakistan’s Army and Air force officers.

    That’s why we ‘d say, Pakistan is born to be the leader, no wonder we are under attack

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