Analysis: Sri Lanka’s regime will no longer be successful in hiding its war crimes
ONE of the worst atrocity crime stories of recent decades has barely registered in the world’s collective conscience. We remember and acknowledge the shame of Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.
We agonise about the failure to halt atrocities being committed almost daily in Syria. But, at least until now, the world has paid little heed to war crimes and crimes against humanity comparable in their savagery to these – the killing fields of Sri Lanka in 2009.
Three years ago, in the bloody endgame of the Sri Lankan government’s war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, some 300,000 civilians were trapped between the advancing army and the last LTTE fighters in what has been called “the cage” – a tiny strip of land, not much larger than New York City’s Central Park, between sea and lagoon in the country’s northeast.
With both sides showing neither restraint nor compassion, at least 10,000 civilians – possibly as many as 40,000 – died in the carnage.
The lack of outrage mainly reflects the Sri Lankan regime’s success in embedding in the minds of policymakers and publics an alternative narrative that had worldwide resonance in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
What occurred in the cage, according to this narrative, was the long-overdue defeat, by wholly necessary and defensible means, of a murderous terrorist insurrection that had risked the country’s very existence.
The other key reason behind the silence is that the Sri Lankan government was relentless in banning independent observers from reporting its actions – a problem compounded by the timidity of in-country United Nations officials.President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government claims to this day it maintained a “zero civilian casualties” policy and fully respected international law[‘.
But that narrative is now being picked apart in a series of recent publications, notably the report last year of a UN Panel of Experts, and in two new books: UN official Gordon Weiss’s The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, and BBC journalist Frances Harrison’s Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War.
Nobody underplays the LTTE’s part in the 2009 savagery; but, with the Tigers’ leaders all dead, international attention should now focus on holding the government accountable for its failure to protect its own people. For far too long, Rajapaska’s government has been evading accountability.
Real international pressure is at last being placed on the government to explain its actions, most significantly by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, which will consider Sri Lanka’s response in March 2013. In doing so, it is likely to be armed with a full brief of evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity now being compiled by the Australian-based International Crimes Evidence Project.
• Gareth Evans, Australia’s foreign minister for eight years and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group, is Chancellor of the Australian National University
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