Today, a long-delayed report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, calling for accountability for war crimes committed in Sri Lanka, was released to the public. The report includes the principal findings of OHCHR’s investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights committed during the 26-year armed conflict in Sri Lanka.
The OHCHR investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL), a special team established by the former High Commissioner Navi Pillay, identified several crimes that were committed between 2002 and 2011, which, if established in a court of law, could amount to war crimes and/or crimes against humanity.
The OISL called on the Government of Sri Lanka to adopt specific legislation establishing an ad hoc hybrid special court, integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators, mandated to try war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The OISL also called on the Government of Sri Lanka to accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Sri Lanka’s government said on Monday that it was setting up a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission to look into the atrocities. However, the UN report found that Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system was not yet ready or equipped to conduct independent and credible investigations into the allegations contained in the OISL report, or to hold accountable those responsible for the violations.
The report found that the sheer number of allegations, their gravity, recurrence and the similarities in their modus operandi, as well as the consistent pattern of conduct they indicated, all pointed towards system crimes. It emphasised that violations of international human rights law, serious violations of international humanitarian law and international crimes were allegedly committed by all parties to the conflict.
Among the crimes that were identified were unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary arrests of civilians by Sri Lankan security forces and paramilitary groups as well as brutal use of torture, particularly in the aftermath of the armed conflict when former LTTE members and civilians were detained en masse. Furthermore, the information gathered by OISL provided reasonable grounds to believe that rape and other forms of sexual violence by security forces personnel was widespread against both male and female detainees.
The LTTE was accused of extensive recruitment and use of children in the armed conflict and the OISL gathered information indicating a pattern of abductions leading to forced recruitment of adults by the LTTE until 2009.
“This report is being presented in a new political context in Sri Lanka, which offers ground for hope,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein said in a statement. “It is crucial that this historic opportunity for truly fundamental change is not allowed to slip.”
The Sri Lankan war started in 1983 when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE) started an insurgency against the Sri Lankan government in order to create an independent Tamil state in the north and east of the country. In 2009, the Sri Lankan military defeated the LTTE, bringing the 26-year civil war to an end. The UN estimates that 40,000 Tamils died in the final army offensive.