Did a U.S. ambassador accuse Sri Lanka’s president of war crimes?

Are we surprised to learn, via WikiLeaks, that American diplomats in Colombo blame Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his top officials for the massacre of tens of thousands (by most estimates) of Tamil civilians during the final months of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war? The goods are in a Jan. 15 cable sent by ...

Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images
Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images
Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

Are we surprised to learn, via WikiLeaks, that American diplomats in Colombo blame Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his top officials for the massacre of tens of thousands (by most estimates) of Tamil civilians during the final months of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war? The goods are in a Jan. 15 cable sent by U.S. Amb. Patricia A. Butenis on the eve of Sri Lanka’s presidential elections (which Rajapaksa won handily). Butenis was assessing the country’s ability to come to terms with the atrocities committed in the protracted conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers rebel group, which was defeated in May 2009 after nearly three decades of fighting.

In May, the Sri Lankan government announced plans to launch a “truth and reconciliation commission,” modeled on South Africa’s post-Apartheid investigation, to look into the brutal last phase of the war, in which large numbers of Tamil civilians were trapped between the government and rebel troops. Human rights groups aren’t exactly holding their breath for the results of the ongoing inquiry, led as it is by the same government that was allegedly responsible for most of the carnage. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and International Crisis Group — which released a sweeping and damning report on the war crimes in May — all turned down invitations to participate. Butenis, it turns out, was similarly nonplussed, writing:

There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power. In Sri Lanka this is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers and opposition candidate General [Sarath] Fonseka.

This last observation gets headline treatment from the Guardian, and it is notable for Butenis’s willingness to name names. But the State Department has been fairly clear, albeit more diplomatic, about what it thinks happened in the spring of 2009, in a report released in March:

The government’s respect for human rights declined as armed conflict reached its conclusion. Outside of the conflict zone, the overwhelming majority of victims of human rights violations, such as extrajudicial killings and disappearances, were young male Tamils, while Tamils were estimated to be only 16 percent of the overall population. Credible reports cited unlawful killings by paramilitaries and others believed to be working with the awareness and assistance of the government, assassinations by unknown perpetrators, politically motivated killings, and disappearances.

An August report from State also (cautiously) expressed concern about the integrity of the government’s commission. In short, Butenis’s assessment is generally consistent with what humanitarian workers on the ground in Sri Lanka at the time of the conflict thought State’s position was — one that may not have been shared by American defense and intelligence personnel, who were believed to be less squeamish about the military campaign against the Tigers.

I asked Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka project director for ICG, about the cable. He says it contains few surprises:

It’s certainly consistent with how the embassy and the State Department are looking at the situation. They knew bad things happened — they’re calling them “alleged” war crimes, but I think in a quiet moment they would say they were war crimes. They recognize that that happened. But they don’t think there’s the space internally for it to be addressed. So I don’t think we’re learning a whole lot new. What would tell us more, and what will be more interesting, and where the issues are a bit more gray, is what happened during the war — what did the U.S. government know, and what did it do, or not do, to prevent the worst abuses and suffering?

Charles Homans is a special correspondent for the New Republic and the former features editor of Foreign Policy.

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