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Mass killings of Tamil civilians downplayed in new UN report on Sri Lanka, silent on genocide question

Published on October 19, 2015        Author: 
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On 1 October 2015 the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted by consensus the resolution ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’. The basis for the resolution was the release and consideration of the long awaited Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) (see here for links to the summary and full reports).

Strikingly, OISL moves away from the position on mass civilian killings taken in an earlier UN report of 2011 (see EJIL: Talk! post here) (2011 Report). According to the 2011 Report, tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed between January and May 2009, in particular the final weeks leading up to the government declaration of victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who immediately prior to this period controlled most of the Tamil-dominated Vanni region of the island. The 2011 Report found reasonable grounds to believe that most of these deaths were the result of intentional government attacks directed at civilians, amounting to crimes against humanity. In contrast OISL neglects to estimate the scale of deaths and considers these same attacks only as a set of potential war crimes, denying their widespread and systematic nature against a civilian population. The new report which proposes a domestically-based war crimes mechanism shifts attention away from the most egregious international crimes of the government in the 2011 Report, leaving the demands of Tamil representatives for consideration of the crime of genocide unaddressed. 

The 2011 Report places these mass killings prominently, finding:

“… Between September 2008 and 19 May 2009, the Sri Lanka Army advanced its military campaign into the [LTTE-held] Vanni using large-scale and widespread shelling, causing large numbers of civilian deaths. This campaign constituted persecution of the population of the Vanni… The Government shelled on a large scale in three consecutive No Fire Zones, where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate, even after indicating that it would cease the use of heavy weapons. It shelled the United Nations hub, food distribution lines and near [ICRC] ships that were coming to pick up the wounded… It shelled in spite of its knowledge of the impact, provided by its own intelligence systems and through notification by the [UN], the ICRC and others. Most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by Government shelling…The Government also systematically deprived people in the conflict zone of humanitarian aid, in the form of food and medical supplies … To this end, it purposefully underestimated the number of civilians who remained in the conflict zone. Tens of thousands lost their lives from January to May 2009, many of whom died anonymously in the carnage of the final few days.” (p.ii. “Executive Summary, Allegations found credible by the Panel”)

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