A US State Department report on possible violations of the laws of war in Sri Lanka made public on October 22, 2009 shows the need for an independent international investigation, Human Rights Watch said today. The report details violations of the laws of war committed by both government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from January through May 2009.
“The US State Department report should dispel any doubts that serious abuses were committed during the conflict’s final months,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Given Sri Lanka’s complete failure to investigate possible war crimes, the only hope for justice is an independent, international investigation.”
The Office of War Crimes Issues of the State Department prepared the report on possible war crimes committed during the final months of the 26-year-long civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, which ended in May with the LTTE’s defeat. The report details alleged incidents of LTTE child recruitment, government and LTTE attacks on civilians and civilian objects, killings of captives or combatants by government forces, enforced disappearances by government forces and government-supported paramilitaries, and severe shortages of food, medicine, and clean water for civilians trapped in the war zone.
The report was presented to Congress on October 21 and was released today on the US State Department website.
The report was mandated by the 2009 Supplemental Appropriations Act. The act directed the secretary of state to submit a report “detailing incidents during the recent conflict in Sri Lanka that may constitute violations of international humanitarian law or crimes against humanity, and, to the extent practicable, identifying the parties responsible.”
The act further instructed the US government to withhold financial support from Sri Lanka, except for basic human needs, unless the Sri Lankan government respects the rights of internally displaced persons, accounts for persons detained in the conflict, provides access to affected areas and populations for humanitarian organizations and the media, and implements policies to promote reconciliation and justice.
Human Rights Watch’s own research into the fighting found that both sides repeatedly violated the laws of war. The LTTE used civilians as human shields, employed lethal force to prevent civilians from fleeing to safety, and deployed their forces in densely populated civilian areas. Government forces indiscriminately shelled densely populated areas, including hospitals. Both parties’ disregard for civilian life resulted in thousands of civilian casualties. Because independent observers, including the media and human rights organizations, were denied access to the war zone, detailed information on violations of the laws of war by both sides has been limited.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called upon the United Nations and member nations of the Security Council and the Human Rights Council to establish an independent international investigation into allegations of laws-of-war violations. The Sri Lankan government has promised to ensure accountability through domestic inquiries. For example, in a joint May statement, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, underlined the importance of an accountability process for addressing violations of international law and stated that “[t]he Government will take measures to address those grievances.” In the five months since the war ended, however, no investigations have taken place.
“Concerned governments should use the US State Department report as a clarion call for an international investigation,” said Adams. “There are no more excuses for inaction.”