U.S. seeks human-rights abuse probe

Oct. 27, 2009 at 11:00 AM
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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Oct. 27 (UPI) -- A U.S. State Department report on allegations of human-rights abuses during the Sri Lankan military's final campaign this year against the Tamil Tiger rebels has once again put the island nation in the international spotlight, much to its government's deep displeasure.

The report, submitted to the U.S. Congress last week, urges the Sri Lankan government to investigate allegations of rights abuses and war crimes by both the military and the Tiger rebels in the last days of the fighting that ended in May with the military claiming victory in the 25-year civil war. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had been fighting for a separate homeland for the Tamil-speaking minority in the predominantly Buddhist nation.

Notwithstanding the strong reaction from Colombo, which called the report's findings "unsubstantiated and devoid of corroborative evidence," the document made clear there were credible allegations involving both sides in the final days of the war.

Ever since its military victory, the Sri Lankan government has been dogged by one controversy or the other, bringing with it severe global criticisms, including from the United Nations, human-rights groups and the media.

These criticisms have to do not only with the alleged war atrocities by both sides prior to May, but with the huge humanitarian crisis of some quarter of a million civilians forced to leave their homes to escape the fighting and the Sri Lankan government's handling of these civilians kept in government camps since May with little to no basic facilities such as clean water and medicine.

The Sri Lankan government has maintained it is doing all it can to resettle them despite innumerable odds including the task of ensuring there are no rebels hiding among these civilians.

It is in this charged environment that the State Department document has come out.

The document, based on reports from the U.S. Embassy in Sri Lanka, international aid agencies and media and other sources, deals with such allegations as enlisting children as soldiers by the rebels, civilians being attacked by both sides, captives being killed by government troops, disappearances blamed on the government or government-supported paramilitary forces, and the terrible sufferings of the civilians in war zones.

"This report compiles alleged incidents that transpired in the final stages of the war, which may constitute violations of international humanitarian law or crimes against humanity and related harms," said the report, titled "U.S. Department of State -- 2009: Report to Congress on incidents during the recent conflict in Sri Lanka."

"The report does not reach legal conclusions as to whether the incidents described herein actually constitute violations of IHL, crimes against humanity or other violations of international law. Nor does it reach conclusions concerning whether the alleged incidents detailed herein actually occurred," it added.

"We are certainly calling on the government, as part of the reconciliation process, to develop an accountability process that respects the interests of all," Stephen Rapp, the U.S. envoy for war crimes issues who made the appeal to Sri Lanka for an investigation, told The Washington Post in an interview.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who authorized the study, said it showed there were serious violations of the laws of war by both sides and that a "full and independent investigation is needed, and those responsible must be held accountable," The Post reported.

Rejecting the State Department allegations, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry on its Web site claimed "there is a track record of vested interests endeavoring to bring the government into disrepute, through fabricated allegations and concocted stories," adding "these interests hope to undo" the efforts for rehabilitation and reconciliation.

Human Rights Watch in New York welcomed the State Department report.

"Given Sri Lanka's complete failure to investigate possible war crimes, the only hope for justice is an independent, international investigation," said Brad Adams, the group's Asia director.

In its recent issue, the Economist, while noting the Tamil Tigers were among the first to practice suicide bombing and child-enlisting, warned that the Sri Lankan government, with its reputation "already tarnished by the manner of its final victory" and the way it has handled the refugee situation, "risks squandering the richest prize that victory offers: the chance for national reconciliation."

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