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Pressure to Probe Sri Lanka Atrocities Expected to Continue


Sri Lankan soldiers patrol in Jaffna, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) northeast of Colombo, Sri Lanka, June 21, 2006 file photo

Sri Lankan soldiers patrol in Jaffna, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) northeast of Colombo, Sri Lanka, June 21, 2006 file photo

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Tuesday welcomed the public release of a U.N.-appointed panel's report on war crimes allegedly committed during the last phase of the conflict in Sri Lanka, and supported the report’s call for further international investigation. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said this week he did not have the authority to appoint an investigative body to look further into the human rights violations cited in the report. Still pressure is likely to continue for some form of coordinated action on the report's findings.

India's government issued a statement Tuesday saying it will "engage with the Government of Sri Lanka" on issues of suspected war crimes raised in a new report by a panel of United Nations experts.

Sri Lanka's main opposition party, the UNP, says it will appoint a team to study the panel report. Sri Lankan leaders have bitterly rejected the report as biased and fraudulent, and warned last week its release would do "irrevocable damage" to the country's reconciliation process.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday he did not have the authority to embrace the report's recommendation that he appoint a new body to conduct further investigations.

Jehan Perera, executive director of Sri Lanka's National Peace Council, says Colombo will see that decision in a positive light.

"To the extent that it takes the pressure off the government that the U.N. secretary general himself might order another investigating mechanism, it will be welcomed by the government," said Perera.

The U.N. report accuses the Sri Lankan Sinhalese-dominated government of systematically shelling civilian and humanitarian targets, killing tens of thousands of non-combatants in the final months of the country's three-decade civil war. It also accuses minority Tamil Tiger insurgents of holding civilians hostage in the safe areas and using them as human shields, among other atrocities.

Perera says many members of Sri Lanka's Sinhalese majority population see the report as part of a broader international conspiracy to divide the country.

"There is a polarization taking place within Sri Lankan society with regard to this report. It has become quite difficult for those within Sri Lanka to actually voice any agreement with any aspect of the report because there is so much opposition to it," he said.

Political decision

Alan Keenan, a senior analyst on Sri Lanka with the International Crisis Group, sees Ban's decision not to appoint investigators as more of a political than a legal decision.

"If the secretary general doesn't feel he has the backing from important members of the Security Council, in this case Russia and China, he apparently doesn't want to take that political risk," he said.

Gordon Weiss, a former spokesman for the United Nations in Sri Lanka, believes more pressure will mount on Sri Lanka as the international community studies the report.

"I do think there will be greater action. I think there will be considerable pressure applied to the secretary general, and within the Security Council, to see some real action. The very clarity of this report is going to make it very difficult to just walk past and pretend that it didn't happen," said Weiss.

Weiss says neither diplomacy nor history have caught up with the gravity of what happened in Sri Lanka. "We're talking about one of the great war crimes of the last 30 years. We're talking about crimes that put the current disturbances in the Middle East into proportion, and make them look like a tea party. They put crimes like Srebrenica into the shade," he said.

Sri Lanka's own domestic account of the civil war, by what it calls the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, is expected to be made public next month.

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