SAJAforum: UN Official Alleges War Crimes in Sri Lanka’s Escalating Civil War

Sri Lanka (map: BBC)The civil war in Sri Lanka has attracted greater international scrutiny within the past week, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay suggesting that both the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) may have committed war crimes:

Warning that the loss of life may reach “catastrophic levels,” [Pillay] urged the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels to halt hostilities to allow the evacuation of civilians trapped on the northeastern coast.

Pillay said the government had repeatedly shelled the designated “no-fire” zones for civilians and also cited reports the separatist
guerrillas were holding civilians as human shields and had shot some as they tried to flee.

“Certain actions being undertaken by the Sri Lankan military and by the LTTE may constitute violations of international human rights and humanitarian law,” Pillay said in a statement.

“The world today is ever sensitive about such acts that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” added the former
U.N. war crimes judge, who is a member of the Tamil ethnic group and grew up in South Africa.

Pillay called on Sri Lanka’s government to grant full access to U.N. and other aid agencies to monitor human rights and humanitarian conditions amid reports of “severe malnutrition” among those trapped. [link]

Pillay stated that as many as 2,800 civilians have been killed and over 7,000 injured since January, and that as many as 180,000 civilians may be trapped in the conflict zone.

Others in the international community have raised similar concerns. According to the International Committee for the Red Cross, the humanitarian situation faced by civilians in the conflict zone is “deteriorating by the day.” Former special advisor to the UN Secretary General Lakhdar Brahimi says that the humanitarian crisis places Sri Lanka “on the brink of catastrophe.” In a phone call to to Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed “deep concern” about escalating civilian deaths and urged the Sri Lankan Army “not [to] fire into the civilian areas of the conflict zone.” The European Union has also called for a cease fire to permit trapped civilians to escape the fighting.

Sri Lanka disputes the UN’s figures — the LTTE, the government asserts, has “infiltrated certain personalities into these agencies” — and has rejected calls for a cease fire. More details are available in two stories from the BBC World Service’s Evening Report, linked above (and here and here). However, according to the Christian Science Monitor:

[T]he sensitive data aired by Ms. Pillay were based on firsthand daily reporting by UN national staff and aid workers trapped in the no-fire zone. A copy of a recent UN briefing paper that was obtained by the Monitor listed similar casualty figures and described mounting casualties in the squalid, densely packed coastal strip. “Daily incoming artillery and mortar fire has caused large number of casualties with a noted increase since 26 Feb,” it said.

The briefing paper said several weeks of food and medicine shortages had led to deaths from malnutrition and from preventable diseases. [link]

Meanwhile, SAJAer Angilee Shah has published a feature article in the Far Eastern Economic Review (which was reported from Colombo, Singapore, and Los Angeles with the support of a SAJA Reporting Fellowship) critically examining the consequences of the Rajapaksa government’s aggressive approach to prosecuting the civil war:

Continue reading at SAJAforum….