Exclusive: Ban’s Sri Lanka war crimes panel stuck in New York
Sri Lanka has cut off direct talks with a U.N. panel set up in June to promote accountability for war crimes during the final stages of the country’s bloody 2009 offensive against Tamil separatists, U.N. officials told Turtle Bay. The panel had been planning a trip to Colombo to question senior officials responsible for addressing ...
Sri Lanka has cut off direct talks with a U.N. panel set up in June to promote accountability for war crimes during the final stages of the country's bloody 2009 offensive against Tamil separatists, U.N. officials told Turtle Bay.
Sri Lanka has cut off direct talks with a U.N. panel set up in June to promote accountability for war crimes during the final stages of the country’s bloody 2009 offensive against Tamil separatists, U.N. officials told Turtle Bay.
The panel had been planning a trip to Colombo to question senior officials responsible for addressing massive rights violations during the conflict, but that visit is now unlikely.
Sri Lanka’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, who commanded troops during the war, wrote to the office of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this month to say that going forward his government would only hold talks with Ban’s advisors, not with the panel investigating war crimes. U.N. officials say they fear Sri Lanka’s action, which comes one month after Sri Lanka’s U.N. ambassador, Palitha Kohona, invited the panel to Colombo, may be calculated to run down the clock on talks on a visit until the panel’s mandate expires at the end of February.
The dispute centers on the terms under which the visit would take place. Sri Lanka has agreed to a visit by the U.N. panel on the condition that its activities be limited to testifying before the Sri Lanka Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up by President Mahinda Rajapaksa last year to address the conflict and promote reconciliation between the country’s ruling Sinhalese and minority Tamils. The panel has demanded broader freedom to talk to a range of Sri Lankan officials.
President Rajapaksa agreed to invite the panel to Sri Lanka during a meeting with Ban in New York along the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly debate last September, Sri Lanka’s U.N. envoy, Palitha Kohona, told Turtle Bay. "The understanding at that point was the panel will come to Sri Lanka and make representations to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission," he said. Kohona claimed the panel has sought to unilaterally "expand the scope of that understanding." U.N. officials have privately challenged Kohona’s account of Ban’s agreement with Rajapaksa, saying Ban did not agree to limiting the scope of the panel’s activities in Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan army mounted a brutal military offensive in 2009 against the country’s rebel Tamil Tigers, decisively defeating the 33-year-old separatist insurgency that pioneered the use of suicide bombers and assassinated a Sri Lankan president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, in 1993 and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
In their last stand, the separatist Tamil Tigers embedded themselves in a displaced community of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tamil civilians, forcing them to serve as human shields. The Sri Lankan military, meanwhile, fired indiscriminately into crowds of civilians, killing as many as 30,000.
Human rights groups fear that Sri Lanka’s successful, though highly brutal, military campaign will become a model for other governments seeking to crush insurgencies. They have pressed Ban to ensure that Sri Lankan war criminals are held accountable.
Ban exacted a pledge from Rajapaksa in May 2009 to ensure that war criminals on both sides of the conflict be held accountable. The government has since set up the Lessons Learnt Commission to promote reconciliation between the Tamils and Sinhalese, but the commission has been criticized by human rights groups and foreign dignitaries as inadequate.
Frustrated with the lack of progress, Ban established a three-member panel in June to advise him on how to ensure rights violators are held accountable for possible war crimes. In a statement, Ban said the panel hoped to cooperate with Sri Lankan officials in Sri Lanka.
The panel is chaired by Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia, Yasmin Sooka of South Africa, and Steven Ratner of the United States. It has a mandate to examine "the modalities, applicable international standards and comparative experience with regard to accountability processes, taking into account the nature and scope of any alleged violations in Sri Lanka." It is also supposed to advise Sri Lanka on ensuring Sri Lankan war criminals are held accountable.
Sri Lanka initially accused Ban of exceeding his authority and refused to provide the panel members with visas to enter the country. Sri Lankan authorities are concerned that the panel, which will produce a report with recommendations, may call for the establishment of a commission of inquiry, a frequent first step before an international prosecution.
In July, Sri Lanka’s minister for housing and construction, Wimal Weerawansa, led a group of pro-government protesters that ringed the U.N.’s Colombo headquarters, harassing U.N. employees, preventing staffers from entering and exiting the U.N. compound, and burning U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki moon in effigy. Sri Lanka officials essentially ignored the panel’s repeated requests for visas to travel to Colombo.
But in December, Sri Lanka’s U.N. ambassador, Palitha Kohona, invited the panel to lunch and offered an invitation to visit Colombo. A subsequent letter made it clear that the panel’s visit would be restricted to sharing their views on accountability before the Lessons Learned Commission: They would not be permitted to question the commission or conduct interviews with key Sri Lankan officials, including the attorney general, responsible for pursuing justice in the case.
"The Sri Lankan mission had initially indicated they would be amenable to the panel meeting with it to make whatever representations it may wish to make, but it seems now that such a visit has still not been decided," said a senior U.N. official. "I am not sure if this is a simple matter of the Sri Lankan side prevaricating. The panel is nevertheless open and keen on any appropriate interaction with the LLC."
"The Sri Lankans have sought to keep their interaction through the secretariat, specifically the EOSG [the executive office of the secretary general]," the official said. "We have, however, been asking them and the panel to deal with each other directly and shall continue to do so."
(H/T to Inner City Press, which referred to Sri Lankan reversal in this Jan. 18 post)
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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