Will Sri Lanka's Tamils Get Some Measure of Justice from the United Nations?
Forty-seven governments on the Untied Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) will discuss and decide, beginning at its May 30th session, what to do about an unusually candid and truthful report in the world of international politics.
The Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka was delivered to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on March 31 concerning both alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in the last phases of the 26-year old civil war that ended May 19, 2009, and the consequences for approximately 300,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) and, by extension, for the 2.7 million Sri Lankan Tamils, who were the losers in the war. Some 13% of the Sri Lanka’s 21 million people are Tamil.
After receiving the report, which calls for investigations into these allegations, Ban Ki-moon stated that he did not have the power alone but that one of three UN bodies could request such action by either the General Assembly or the Security Council or the Human Rights Council.
The panel—chairman Marzuki Darusman (Indonesia), Steven Ratner (US), and Yasmin Sooka (South Africa)—was commissioned by the Secretary General, June 22, 2010, after Sri Lanka’s government had failed to rehabilitate or reconcile with the Tamils affected by the brutal war. According to the panel’s finding, the war caused up to 40,000 civilian deaths in its last eight months. Also killed were several thousand government soldiers and combatants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The Panel began its work in September 2010 but had to conduct its research outside Sri Lanka as the government refused this United Nations body permission to enter its country. The Panel could interview many eye witnesses, however, who were eventually released from military camps after months of detention—in many cases after paying bribes—or who were able to escape the war zone towards the end on boats provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Several ICRC workers and other humanitarian employees were killed by government military shelling.
Of the dozens of recommendations proposed by the panel, the last two concern the United Nations.
The first of these reads:
“The Human Rights Council should be invited to reconsider its May 2009 Special Session Resolution (A/HRC/8-11/L. 1/Rev. 2) regarding Sri Lanka, in light of this report.”
This refers to reconsidering resolution originally proposed by the Sri Lankan government to praise its behavior in the war and to condemn only the LTTE for war crimes and terrorism. Not a member of the HRC, Sri Lanka got Cuba, then the Non-Aligned Movement president, to introduce it. It passed with 29 voting in favor and 12 against, with six abstentions.
The Panel determined that, “the Human Rights Council may have been acting on incomplete information” when it took that vote.
The second recommendation reads:
“The Secretary-General should conduct a comprehensive review of actions by the United Nations system during the war in Sri Lanka and the aftermath, regarding the implementation of its humanitarian and protection mandates.”
The Panel criticized the UN’s role in this conflict stating:
“During the final stages of the war, the United Nations political organs and bodies failed to take actions that might have protected civilians.”