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SRI LANKA: Myths and Realities: Reflections on the Report of the UN Advisory Panel and Colombo’s R

Sri Lanka had been at war with itself for several years and sections of international community are getting sensitized to the horrendous crimes which took place in the island during the last stages of the Fourth Eelam War. The Report of the UN Secretary General’s panel of experts on accountability in Sri Lanka – not an investigative panel, but only an advisory group – has triggered off an intense debate within the island as well as the wider world. Unfortunately in India, especially in Tamil Nadu, the publication of the report has not resulted in a healthy debate. This essay is intended to provoke a lively discussion. It also makes a plea that India should revise its stance on the human rights issue. As and when the report comes up for discussion in the United Nations, India, unlike previous occasions, should not bail out Sri Lanka.

Few preliminary observations are in order.  If one takes an overview of the convulsions that have taken place in Sri Lanka since independence, one fact becomes clear. Violence in Sri Lanka was not confined to Tamil areas alone. During 1988-90, aptly characterized by many perceptive observers as Bishana Samaya (massive repression), the two rivers of exquisite beauty in southern Sri Lanka, Kelaniya Gangaand Mahaveli Ganga, were clogged with dead bodies and foamed with blood. And violence in Sri Lanka degenerated from inter-ethnic violence to intra-ethnic violence. As the distinguished Anthropologist Valentine Daniel has pointed out, “violence is no longer inter-ethnic, but intra-ethnic, with Tamils killing Tamils, Sinhalas killing Sinhalas and the State killing the most, Sinhalas and the Tamils”.

During the second JVP revolt which broke out after the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Accord and the induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) capitalized on the Sinhala backlash, became the champion of Sinhala extremism and spread its own form of violence in  southern Sri Lanka. Gradually the Sri Lankan Army got the upper hand and decimated the Sinhala youth, without any qualms of conscience. A young Sinhala politician left the shores of Sri Lanka, camped in Geneva and pleaded for UN humanitarian intervention to save his people. He was ably assisted by two comrades in arms, Vasudeva Nayanakkara and Tissainayagam. This politician is none other than the present Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. I am sure Mahinda Rajapaksa would not like to be reminded of his earlier commitment to human values and his plea for UN intervention to save Sri Lanka from genocide.

The UN Advisory Panel came into existence following UN Secretary General’s visit to Sri Lanka.  In a joint statement issued at the end of the visit, the Secretary General “underlined the importance of an accountability process” and the Government of Sri Lanka agreed that “it will take measures to address those grievances”. The Panel consisted of Marzuke Darusman (Indonesia) who was the Chairman, Steven Ratner (United States) and Yasmin Sooka (South Africa).  The Panel formally commenced its work on 16 September 2010. The Panel was not a fact finding mission, it only made an assessment of the “nature and scope of alleged human rights violations”. In subsequent paragraphs, in certain places, we have referred to the UN Panel Report as Darusman Report.

Sri Lanka, it may be mentioned, is a signatory to several UN Human Rights Treaties and Conventions. Among the Treaties and Conventions which Sri Lanka has ratified mention should be made of 1) International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination; 2) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 3) International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; 4) Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women; 5) Convention against Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading Treatment or Punishment; 6) Convention on the Rights of the Child; 7) Convention on the protection of the rights of the migrant workers and 7) Convention on the rights of the persons with disabilities. It is, therefore, obligatory on the part of Sri Lanka to prosecute those responsible for human rights violations. The responsibility of Sri Lanka is to uphold the “the right to truth, the right to justice and the right to reparations, including institutional guarantees of non – recurrence”.

Since the advent of independence, the Government of Sri Lanka had appointed several commissions to enquire into human rights violations and take action against the guilty. To mention a few of these, the Samsoni Commission of 1977; Kokkaddicholai   Commission of 1991; the Presidential Truth Commission of 2001 on ethnic violence and the 2006 Presidential Commission of Enquiry. In 2010 the Government of Sri Lanka has appointed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. What happened to these enquiry commissions? In some cases, the commissions did not submit any report, in few others their reports were shelved without publication and the Government did not act upon it. The reports rarely criticized the government functionaries. According to perceptive observers, the same fate will befall the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.

The UN Advisory Panel submitted its report on April 12, 2010. Before it was formally published, a leaked version of it appeared in the Sri Lankan media and a chorus of vehement protests against the UN followed. Speaking in the Sri Lankan Parliament, the Minister for External Affairs Prof. GL Peiris underlined the views of the Sri Lankan Government. He maintained it was not a UN Report and it was constituted at the private initiative of the UN Secretary General. It has no investigative power, it is not a fact finding body. The Advisory panel has no formal nexus with the United Nations. Prof. Peiris claimed that while Colombo was involved in a reconciliation process with the Tamils, the Advisory Panel Report would sharpen the “dividing lines between the Sinhala and the Tamil communities”.

Major Findings

At the outset, it is necessarily to highlight the fact that the Darusman Report is highly critical of both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE. The concluding part of the report sums the human rights violations of both parties. The human rights violations committed by the Tigers in the final stages of the war include using civilians as  a human buffer, shooting and killing of civilians who were trying to escape from the LTTE control, forcibly recruiting children into the baby brigade and using military equipment in the proximity of civilians and forced labour. Since the Tigers have been decimated and Prabhakaran killed, naturally attention will be focused on the violations perpetrated by the Sri Lankan government and its continuing attitude of defiance and repression.

The Darusman Report highlights the following violations by the Sri Lankan Government. The killing of civilians by widespread shelling, savage attacks on hospitals and humanitarian objects, denial of humanitarian assistance, human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors of the conflict, including the IDPs and suspected Tiger cadres and violations outside the conflict zone including the media and political opponents. The Darusman report emphatically maintains that during the final stages of the war what happened was in stark contrast to what the Government of Sri Lanka was asserting before the international community. The position of the Government was that it was conducting “humanitarian rescue operations” with a policy of “zero civilian casualties”.

The Advisory Panel report has highlighted the fact that the withdrawal of the UN personnel and the international NGOs from the war zone meant that there was no way to ascertain what exactly was happening in the Kilinochi area. The report quotes the statement issued by two doctors working in the conflict zone, Dr. Sathiamurthy and Dr. Varatharaja, that “Most of the hospital deaths could have been prevented if basic infrastructure facilities and essential medicines were made available… We have been supplied with no antibiotics and not even a single bottle of IV fluid, leaving us in a desperate situation of not being able to provide even life saving emergency surgery”.

While there is no way to find out the number of exact casualties, the report adds that taking into consideration several factors including the reports of the UN country teams, “a number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths”. What is more, the cadres of the LTTE “were executed after being taken into custody by the Sri Lankan Army”. The UK based Channel 4 News released video footage of the summary execution of LTTE cadres by the Sri Lankan Army with their hands tied behind the backs. The Report further adds that “rape and sexual violence” against Tamil women are “greatly under reported”.

According to the UN Advisory Panel, between September 2008 and 19 May 2009, the Sri Lankan army advanced its military campaign into the Vanni, using large scale and widespread shelling causing large number of civilian deaths. To quote, “The campaign constituted persecution of the population of Vanni. Around 3, 30,000 civilians were trapped into an ever decreasing area, fleeing the shelling but kept hostage by the LTTE. The Government sought to intimidate and silence the media and other critics of the war through a variety of threats and actions, including the use of white vans to abduct and to make people disappear”. The Government shelled on a large scale in “no fire zones” where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate. The Government also gave the assurance that it would cease the use of heavy weapons. The Government shelled the “United Nations hub, food distribution lines and near the ICRC ships that were coming to pick the wounded and their relatives. All hospitals in the Vanni area were hit by mortars and artillery, some of them hit repeatedly, despite the fact that their locations were known to the Government. The Government also systematically deprived people of humanitarian aid, in the form of food and surgical supplies, adding to their suffering.

The Report describes continuing obstacles to accountability being created by the Sri Lankan Government like the continuation of the State of Emergency, which is being extended month after month, the prevention of Terrorism Act, which continues to be still in force, lingering militarization of the Conflict Zone and continuing restrictions on the media.

The Report highlights that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by the President in May 2010 will not be able to deliver goods “due to lack of independence and impartiality”. To quote, the LLRC “is deeply flawed, does not meet international standards for an effective accountability mechanism and, therefore, does not and cannot satisfy the joint commitment of the President of Sri Lanka and the Secretary General to an accountability process”.

The Way Forward

The Advisory Panel report asserts that the Sri Lankan Government’s approach to accountability “does not correspond to basic international standards that emphasise truth, justice and reparations for victims”. The claim of the Sri Lankan Government that it was pursuing a “humanitarian rescue operation” with a policy of “zero civilian casualties” stands thoroughly exposed. Therefore, the Report adds that an “independent international approach is imperative”. The panel has also recommended that the UN Human Rights Council should reconsider its May 2009 resolution regarding Sri Lanka.

The ball is in the UN Secretary General’s court. One must wait and see what UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon does and how much support he gets from powerful international actors. On the last occasion, during the 11th Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council on 26-27 May 2009, when the question of Human Rights situation in Sri Lanka was discussed, Colombo was able to muster the support of China, Russia, Pakistan and India. It is imperative that India this time should not bail out Sri Lanka in the United Nations. On the contrary, it should raise its voice in support of the suffering Tamils in the island. Their feelings of anguish and agony should be reflected in the utterances of the Indian representatives in the United Nations.

Prof. V. Suryanarayan had the opportunity to visit Jaffna in January this year.  He met a cross section of people – academicians, students, political leaders, representatives of NGO’s and ordinary people. All of them were unanimous that India, especially Tamil Nadu, did not do anything constructive to prevent the killing of innocent civilians during the last stages of the Fourth Eelam War. A feeling of despair and helplessness was visible in their eyes. The famous lines of Pablo Neruda in Water Song Ends came to his mind:

Perhaps this war will pass like others which divided us leaving us dead, killing us along with the killers, but the shame of this time puts its burning fingers in our faces, who will erase the ruthlessness hidden in innocent blood?

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan, former Senior Professor in the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, is currently Senior Research Fellow, Center for Asia Studies, Chennai. His e-mail and  Shri Ashik Bonofer is Research Fellow in the Center for Asia Studies, Chennai.  His e-mail address is

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