NY Times Op Ed and Response By Neville Ladduwahetty

The Opinion Pages| EDITORIAL

Holding Sri Lanka to Account By THE EDITORIAL BOARD (New York Times) FEB. 3, 2014

Washington is once again trying to put pressure on the government of Sri Lanka to commission a credible independent investigation of crimes and human rights abuses committed during the end of that country’s bloody civil war in 2009. It was a good move to send a senior American diplomat to the island nation last weekend to press the case with public officials and community leaders.

A United Nations panel reported that as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the last stages of the conflict, many of them by military shelling. But the country’s government has failed to hold officials accountable and has resisted every effort by the international community to do so. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has largely ignored two resolutions adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council calling for Sri Lanka to investigate war crimes by both security forces and the separatist Tamil Tigers. The State Department said that the assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs, Nisha Biswal, was visiting Sri Lanka in preparation for a third resolution that the United States would introduce in March.

It would be easy for the world and American officials to give up their demands for accountability given that nearly five years have passed since the end of the war. But that would be tragic and would signal to public officials that they might never have to answer for mass murder. Nobody should be naïve about the motives or intentions of Mr. Rajapaksa. He has little interest in a thorough investigation, and his government’s systematic persecution of journalists and other critics amply demonstrates that he brooks no criticism. But it’s also true that international pressure has forced Mr. Rajapaksa to make some decisions that he would not have made on his own. For example, in September, the country held regional elections in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province that it had been resisting for years. The new provincial council recently voted to call for an independent war crimes investigation. It is important that the world stand with those Sri Lankans who have demanded a full accounting of what happened during the war.

Response:

This is a letter sent to New York Times editor: Reference your editorial titled “Holding Sri Lanka to Account”, Washington’s pressure for a credible independent investigation of crimes and human rights abuses is premised on the UN panel report “that as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the last stages of the conflict, many of them by military shelling”.

The UN expert panel report never stated that this was due to “military shelling”. What it did say in Para 137 of the report was that the number of 40,000 civilians killed is based on “limited surveys that have been carried out in the aftermath of the conflict, (wherein) the percentage of persons reporting dead relatives is high”. It is evident that ALL of the dead relatives reported have been categorized as civilians, whereas this figure must have included LTTE cadres, and others taking direct part in hostilities, as well as civilians.

In this regard it is interesting to note that the UNSG’s internal review panel, in paragraph 29 of their report states that ” the briefing and accompanying documents (by the Resident Coordinator and UN country team to the Diplomatic Corp in Colombo) were forthright in describing LTTE Humanitarian Law Violations including the forced recruitment of men and women and children as young as 12, at least one mass execution of civilians, mass corporal punishments….the blocking of corridors for civilians trying to leave the combat area…. forced movement of civilians, the placing of weapons in areas of civilian concentration, and the diversion and possible withholding of humanitarian aid to civilians”.

Against this background, how credible is it to estimate who was technically a “civilian” and who was a “combatant”? Furthermore, while your editorial implies that violations were committed, solely by the government, evidence by the UN itself shows it to be otherwise. Also, since reconciliation is the final objective, what purpose would be solved by an investigation that one knows would not yield conclusive results, and would instead exacerbate polarization of the communities and deter reconciliation?

Neville Ladduwahetty

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