The UN expert panel set up by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and the explosive scoop by a British TV channel have forced the Rajapakse government to the backfoot and have brought the prospect of Lanka leadership being hauled up before an international tribunal for war crimes tantalizingly close to a reality. The UN report estimated the number of civilian deaths in the final months of the war at 40,000--mainly the result of the military's shelling. It also found that hospitals and food distribution centers inside LTTE-held territory had been deliberately shelled. BBC Channel 4 film on video evidence of war crimes, and Human Rights Watch (HRW) report have added to the discomfort level.
Put together these findings have implicated President Mahinda Rajapakse, his brother Gotabhaya Rajapakse and senior officials and military commanders in a "wide range of serious violations" of international law, some of which "would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity." According to the UN report prepared by a three member team headed by a former Indonesian Attorney General, based on evidence, the Sri Lankan military was complicit in extra-judicial killings of politicians, government critics and LTTE "suspects," and other gross abuses of basic democratic rights.
Faced with intense heat, President Rajapakse, whose claim to fame is his activism as human rights campaigner, and his brother, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, who heads the Defence Ministry, have come up with their "version' of the war situation. This they should have done long time ago to lay "falsehoods' to rest once and for all. But they had chosen to stone wall all queries and dubbed the criticism of the military campaign as a diabolic attempt to tarnish the image of Sri Lanka by and at the behest of "still functional' overseas LTTE network and the ethnic Lanka Tamil Diaspora.
As Poreg experts opined, the ignominy suffered by Rajapaksa government at the hands of the world body and human rights groups is a self-inflicted wound. It is also a lesson to all regimes -civilian and proletarian dictatorships- that censorship of news and denial of access to the theatre of conflict are the twin tools that should be shunned at all costs if the world is to believe the "official' word.
It is difficult to resist the temptation to point out that President Rajapakse is not serving his own cause even at this late stage by keeping the country under emergency. There is no visible or invisible threat to the government and to the unity and integrity of the country. In a sense, Rajapakse has harmed his own image and has denied himself the opportunity of emerging as the darling of the world with his victory over LTTE terrorism.
U.S., and other western nations are not lily-white when it comes to human rights; and their hands are soaked in blood because of their long association with dictatorships. That doesn't mean that their criticism of human rights violations in the Sri Lankan war theatre should be ignored even if it is prompted by President Rajapakse's over use of China card. Nor does it mean the West is treating the insurgent and police on the same footing.
Colombo cannot ignore the fact that the US and European countries as also India backed the campaign against the LTTE throughout the war. So, it is expected of Rajapakse, as people's leader to answer the criticism which, if allowed unanswered, could further the South-North divide in the country. Mere refrain that his troops had adhered to a "zero civilian-casualty policy" is not enough.
It is refreshing, therefore, that the SL Official report on Eelam War IV has admitted that there were indeed civilian causalities during the war and said civilian deaths were unavoidable as the LTTE had used human shields. While releasing the report, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse explained how the military and civilian officials had shown utmost consideration even to the aged parents of LTTE leader Prabhakaran, when they had crossed over to the government controlled territory along with hundreds of other displaced Tamil families.
While the point is well taken, Gotabhaya needs to be reminded that such humanitarian gesture is expected of a democratically elected government. In fact it is such gestures that differentiate a people's government from an insurgent group. And the whole criticism of Sri Lanka government has its genesis in the perception that army was often as ruthless as the insurgents.
The Official Lanka War Report devotes considerable effort and space to the LTTE crimes. Now that LTTE is history, harping on its brutalities serves no purpose. If the intent is juxtaposing the government campaign against the LTTE operations, it is a crude attempt to white wash the "war crimes' particularly since there are no answers as yet to what had happened to the missing 11000 people. Some of them were tortured and summarily executed as LTTE suspects, if one goes by the UN report.
The SL war report is, however, silent on this issue and also on why artillery barrages and rocket fire were directed at areas with civilian population. Yes, the purpose of such action could be creation of panic, fear and hardship to the Tamil civilians in the LTTE controlled areas. But that goes against the need of the day because it was known by then that the civilians in LTTE areas were literally held as hostages and that most of these families had developed aversion towards LTTE and its ideology. The point is the government action had resulted in tens of thousands of people trooping out of Muttur, Vaharai, Sampur, Thoppigala, and several other places. Many of them are still living in IDP camps.
Going by reports in Sri Lankan media, there is more military presence in the entire north and east of the island today than at any time during the war period. Creation of new cantonments may be an insurance against the emergence of another LTTE. Since such a danger is not lurking even on the distant horizon, the move comes to be viewed as militarization of the North and diversion of precious funds away from social welfare. In addition there is the official policy of allowing Sinhalisation of the North, particularly fishermen villages. Both programmes don't find a mention in the delayed first Official Lanka War Report to the world.
There is no half-way or middle path in HR concerns Either a comprehensive refutation with evidence to buttress its claims or convincing narrative to justify war theatre actions as measures to protect the sovereignty of the country will only bring reprieve to beleaguered Colombo. Going by the initial reaction it has generated, it is clear that SL war report falls short of the expectations.
( * this article first appeared on Poreg. org with which the author is associated as Chief Editor )