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Release of UN War Crimes Report Could Pressure Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil victims of a shell attack wait outside a makeshift hospital in Tiger controlled No Fire Zone in Mullivaaykaal, May 10, 2009
Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil victims of a shell attack wait outside a makeshift hospital in Tiger controlled No Fire Zone in Mullivaaykaal, May 10, 2009

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While the U.N.-commissioned report has not yet been made public, Sri Lanka's External Ministry rejected it Wednesday as "fundamentally flawed." The ministry issued a statement saying the report dealing with possible war crimes is based on "patently biased material which is presented without any verification." The statement says officials will comment in detail on the report "in due course."

Human rights organizations, for their part, have reacted very favorably to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's promise to release the full report to the public, once Sri Lanka's leaders have had a chance to digest it. The report could be made public in a matter of days.

The U.N. panel focused much of its attention on the final few months of Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war.  The country's Sinhalese majority government won decisively in its campaign against militant Tamil separatists in 2009.

Both sides have been accused of atrocities, but allegations that Sri Lanka's government may have killed as many as 10,000 civilians in those few months have put officials on the defensive.

Alan Keenan is a senior analyst on Sri Lanka with the International Crisis Group. He says he hopes the U.N. experts will ratchet up international pressure to get answers.

"We hope that they will concur with us that the current Sri Lankan government initiative is not adequate, and that therefore some kind of an international commission of inquiry is required," said Keenan.

Keenan says it is very unlikely the United Nations Security Council or Human Rights Council would form an investigative body. That is partly because powerful veto-holding members Russia and China are sympathetic to the Sri Lankan position that the civil war investigation is an internal matter.

"We think the easiest and most likely [option] is for the Secretary-General himself to appoint some kind of investigative body, and that could have enough investigative powers to produce a further, more detailed study than this panel of experts has been able to do," Kennan said.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, says she hopes the U.N. report will legitimize her group's accusations, which Sri Lanka has dismissed in the past as part of a conspiracy.

"What we are hoping is that it will put a final end to this round of allegations hurled at human rights groups that everything is conjured up," said Ganguly.

Ganguly says failure to approach the issue of civil war atrocities transparently will cost Sri Lanka's government its legitimacy in the long run.

"If Sri Lanka now becomes the proponent for a government that carpet bombs civilians to win a war, that is not the message that is going to be acceptable to most that believe in human rights," said Ganguly. "And Sri Lanka, in a way, is destroying its own credibility by doing this kind of thing, so eventually it will hurt them."

The U.N.-appointed experts were prevented from visiting Sri Lanka on their own terms, and experts say they did not have a strong enough mandate to conduct investigations on the ground. A report by Sri Lankan-appointed investigators, known as the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, is expected to be released next month.

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