Interview

Sri Lanka Rejects War Crimes Accusations

Sri Lanka Rejects War Crimes Accusations

Some 300,000 civilians were caught up in the final days of the military campaign to end the Tamil Tiger insurgency in Sri Lanka last year. Women, children, and elderly Tamils were shelled, used as human shields, denied access to aid, and shuttled into overcrowded camps. And though much of this has been known for months, on May 19, the International Crisis Group went further in perhaps the most thorough investigation yet. In an explosive report, the organization charged that the "Sri Lankan security forces committed war crimes with top government and military leaders potentially responsible."

The specific charges leveled in the report include the intentional shelling of civilians, hospitals, and humanitarian operations. These actions, the report says, were "made substantially worse by the government’s obstruction of food and medical treatment for the civilian population." The report also accuses the Tamil Tigers, known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), of intentionally killing civilians, though the lion’s share of the casualties were government-inflicted. Finally, the report raises the concern that other countries will pursue the "Sri Lankan Option" — "unrestrained military action, refusal to negotiate, disregard for humanitarian issues — as a way to deal with insurgencies and other violent groups."

The report came out just ahead of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris’s visit to the United States, where he is meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. congressional leaders, thinks tanks, and finally Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday. In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy‘s Elizabeth Dickinson, he said the Crisis Group’s allegations were "nebulous" and politically motivated and dismissed concerns about the arrest of former presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: What is the purpose of your trip, and how have your goals been received so far?

G. L. Peiris: A whole new situation has arisen with the defeat of terrorism. Sri Lanka is a country with immense potential. Our per capita income in the late 1940s and early 1950s was the highest in that part of the world — way ahead of Korea, Thailand, and Malaysia. Then we had this problem [of the Tamil Tiger insurgency], which set us back. Now, all of that has been consigned to the past; that’s the difference. My visit here is basically to bring [this] to the media’s attention.

FP: The International Crisis Group recently released a report documenting allegations that both the Tamil Tiger insurgency and the government were involved in actions that constituted war crimes. What is your response to that report — and the allegation of war crimes in particular?

GLP: If you look at the report, the allegations are not attributed to any identifiable source, so verification is therefore not just difficult but impossible. There is a kind of veil of secrecy shrouding the sources [in a way] that is destructive of any kind of transparency or verifiability.

Secondly, the report is couched in vague, nebulous language. One sentence in it says that tens of thousands of civilians were killed. What does that mean? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand would be tens of thousands. Ninety thousand also would be tens of thousands.

Thirdly, the timing of [the report] does raise very significant doubts about motivation, about bonda fides. It was clearly intended to coincide with the first anniversary of the cessation of hostilities and the defeat of the LTTE [Tamil Tigers]. The interesting thing is that all this was coinciding with important events that were taking place with crucial repercussions for Sri Lanka: meetings in Brussels on the 20th and 21st with the European Union. [What was at stake was] duty-free entry into the markets of the European Union for a wide range of products from Sri Lanka, particularly apparel products. The European Union had given notice for a possible suspension of these benefits because of human rights violations and allegations.

Then, [there has been] the pressure on the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, to nominate a panel of experts [to investigate the situation]. He was being harassed every day. It is a custom of the U.N. to have media briefings every day at noon, so every day he is being inundated with questions.

The president of Sri Lanka has appointed a commission consisting of eight very distinguished people [who can] examine the evidence to see whether any individual or group of personas have been guilty of war crimes. What I told the secretary-general emphatically during my meeting with him is to give it a chance. If there are problems that surface later, shortcomings, deficiencies, then we will come to the U.N. and say: We would like assistance with the following. But don’t foist it on us. That will simply make the work of the commission more difficult, and within Sri Lanka there would be public resentment because that attitude would seem patronizing.

FP: Some have suggested that, as part of the reconciliation process, Sri Lanka should give regions more autonomy, particularly the Tamil-dominated north. What is your government’s view?

GLP: The policy of the president’s government is that any solution has to be within the framework of the unitary state. But within the unitary state, we are going to put in place a political solution that will be fair and equitable to all the communities that live in the country. [We need] to work toward the development of a national identity, a national consciousness.

FP: How is the return of displaced persons from the large camps in which they have been held proceeding?

GLP: In one year’s time, we have achieved a great deal. If you look at countries in these kinds of situations, it has taken them 20 years, 30 years. But we started with 297,000 people who had been displaced, and now we have resettled 80 percent of them.

Local government elections could not be held in that part of the country for a long time — more than a decade — because of the turbulence. Now we are holding elections in order to provide space for the spontaneous emergence of a genuine Tamil leadership.

FP: After the national presidential election, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the president’s opponent, was arrested. Why did that happen?

GLP: Because General Fonseka, like all of us, is subject to the laws of the land. He contested the election — these allegations came up earlier. The president was very keen that nothing should be done to prevent [Fonseka] from contesting the election. So he contested the election, and he lost.

FP: When you said "subject to the laws of the land" specifically which law are you talking about?

GLP: He is accused of dishonesty, cheating, criminal misappropriation — the purchase of arms. He abused his position in order to confer very large benefits on a company that was run by his son-in-law. Those are crimes in your country; they are crimes in our country. And just because a man contests an election does not mean his is exempt from the operation of those laws.

FP: But General Fonseka worked with the president for some time, for example in undertaking the final operations of the campaign against the Tamil Tigers. If these allegations were known, why was he not removed from his position then?

GLP: This evidence came to light at a certain point. While the election campaign was going on, this was known. But had any action been taken during that period, it certainly would have been suggested that these matters were being pursued to harm his campaign, so nothing was done during that period to forestall that criticism. He was allowed to carry on his election campaign without any hindrance whatsoever. The election took place, and he lost — by a huge margin. Thereafter, the criminal process was set in motion, as indeed it had to be. It could have been done before the election. But we thought that was not right.

FP: What would have happened if he had won?

GLP: If he had won, then he would be the president of the country. So I can’t answer that question, because then his government would have had to decide. I can’t speak for a government that might have come into being in a hypothetical situation.