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July 06, 2010

Sri Lankan Protests Test UN Power to Investigate War

by Kate Woodsome

In Sri Lanka, there is continuing friction between the government and the United Nations over alleged human rights abuses during the country's civil war last year. A Sri Lankan government minister threatened to stage a hunger strike if the U.N. does not abandon its plans to investigate allegations of human rights abuses.

The United Nations office in Colombo kept its doors shut Wednesday, a day after hundreds of protesters trapped U.N. staff inside the building.

Protesters have removed barricades from the area, but Housing Minister Wimal Weerawanasa says the demonstrations will continue. On Wednesday, he vowed to begin a hunger strike unless the U.N. shuts down a panel assigned to determine whether war crimes were committed during the final months of the government's war against the Tamil rebels.

The U.N. is strongly objecting to the protests.

Major General DC Katoch, a retired Indian army officer with the Center for Land and Warfare Studies in New Delhi, says Sri Lanka is not concerned about what the U.N. thinks.

"It was a war to the finish, either way," said Major General Katoch. "And if some civilian casualties have taken place during that portion of the war, I presume that would have been treated as collateral damage and not a human rights violation."

Sri Lanka's army ended its 25-year fight against the rebels last year with an aggressive military assault on rebel strongholds in the country's north. The U.N. says 7,000 civilians were killed in the final months of the conflict. Human rights groups accuse both sides of committing crimes against civilians.

The government has appointed its own commission to examine the conflict and is refusing to grant visas to members of the U.N. panel.

Katoch says even if the U.N. experts are allowed into the country, the data they will gather will be highly controlled by the Sri Lankan government. And he says both sides in the conflict will be highly polarized.

"Either way to get a free and frank assessment one year down the line is highly improbable," he adds. "If there were independent observers existing at the time the conflict was taking place, it would have been different."

Rights groups have accused the Sri Lankan army of trapping civilians in the war zone while attacking rebel targets. They say the rebels also were guilty of right abuses, using civilians as human shields.

Yolanda Foster of Amnesty International says the U.N. must show Sri Lanka it cannot ignore the laws of war.

"The scale and magnitude of the killings of in ordinary civilians in the northeast of Sri Lanka requires an independent international investigation," Foster said. "Victims' families deserve this, they deserve to know what happened in the final months."

Foster says if the U.N. experts cannot get inside Sri Lanka, there is still enough material to outline the nature of the violations that happened.

"We're calling on the U.N. to disclose its full figures of civilian casualties," said Foster. "There are war survivors who are living in any number of countries outside Sri Lanka. There's satellite data available for analysis."

In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the United States supports people's right to free expression. But he said the U.S. also supports the United Nations panel, and that Sri Lanka needs a robust accountability process to reconcile after years of war.