Sri Lankan government guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity

On Saturday, the Permanent People’s Tribunal on Sri Lanka convened in Dublin to deliver the findings of their investigation into the actions of the government and armed forces of Sri Lanka during the war in Sri Lanka and its aftermath. The tribunal’s verdict, delivered amidst tight security, is a damning indictment of the actions of the Sri Lankan government, and also of the culpability of the international community. The tribunal’s findings also highlighted the appalling treatment of the press in Sri Lanka. 

Over the preceding two days, the tribunal, made up of an 11 member jury from across the global, examined harrowing evidence submitted by eyewitnesses. The evidence, including video footage, depicted indicated violations of human rights by the Sri Lankan military, including the use of heavy artillery and phosphorous munitions, and the continuous violation of human rights by military. 

(Picture: Sri Lankan army commandos march in February 2009)

Audio: Politico's Deirdra O'Regan talks to Denis Halliday, former UN Assistant Secretary General at the People's Tribunal

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The Chairman of the Peoples' Tribunal, Francois Houtart delivered the four central findings of the tribunal:

  • That the Sri Lankan Government is guilty of War Crimes;
  • That the Sri Lankan Government is guilty of crimes against humanity;
  • That the charge of genocide requires further investigation;
  • That the international community, particularly the UK and USA, share responsibility for the breakdown of the peace process.

The Sri Lankan government resolutely denies that it is responsible for the death of even one of the 7,000 civilians that were killed in the first four months of 2009, by UN estimates. 

The Permanent Peoples' Tribunal (PPT) is a tribunal of international opinion independent of State authorities, based in Italy. It examines and provides judgments on violations of human rights and the rights of peoples. In the past the tribunal has investigated the cases of Tibet, Western Sahara, Argentina, Eritrea and the Philippines, amongst others. 

The Tribunal on Sri Lanka was assisted by the Irish Forum for Peace in Sri Lanka (IFPSL), an organisation established in 2007 by a group of human rights and peace campaigners, artists and academics in Ireland with the aim of helping to promote human rights, democracy and a negotiated settlement in Sri Lanka

The UN has been accused of bowing to geo-political pressures for its failure to hold an enquiry into the actions of the Sri Lankan government and armed forces. 

In the wake of the defeat of the Tamils in May 2009, the UN human rights council praised its victory over the Tamil Tigers and refused calls to investigate allegations of war crimes by both sides in the conflict. 

In a move which dismayed critics of Sri Lanka’s approach, Sri Lankan diplomats were able to lobby support from enough of their south Asian allies to pass a resolution describing the conflict as a "domestic matter that doesn't warrant outside interference".

The UN also made another controversial move when it pledged its support for the Sri Lankan government's decision to restrict aid groups access to refugee camps, granting them only "access as may be appropriate."

However, in recent weeks, there has been a reversal of this sentiment from the UN and pressure is mounting on the Sri Lankan authorities. 

The catalyst for this has been the authentication of a video which shows Tamil Tiger rebels being summarily executed. 

After a thorough investigation, UN special rapporteur for Sri Lanka, Philip Alston, concluded that the video, which was first aired by news outlets last August, is genuine. 

In light of this, UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has said: "I'm evaluating the possibility of appointing a commission of experts, to keep me updated and assist the local government to take necessary measures to avoid other violations of international law and humanitarian law in the future".  

Politico offered the Sri Lankan Consulate in Ireland an opportunity to respond to the allegations, they said they have referred our request to the Sri Lankan High Commission in London who will respond. We have not yet received any response. 

The 'War without Witness' and the media 

According to the Reporters without Borders index, press freedom in Sri Lanka became the "worst in any democratic country” during the incumbent Rajapaksa administration. The country ranks 165th among 173 countries in the index. 

Dil Wickremasinghe, a Sri Lankan national living in Ireland, spoke to Politico about her personal experience of the Sri Lankan government’s heavy handed approach to press freedom. Ms Wickremasinghe's grandfather, a prominent Sri Lankan journalist, author, human rights activist was murdered in 1990, and it is commonly believed that he was murdered by the government. Dil Wickremasinghe is the Managing Director of Diversity and Equality Works, and presenter of the weekly programme ‘Global Village’ on Newstalk radio.

Ms Wickremasinghe also says that she is in no doubt that genocide has occurred in Sri Lanka.

(Picture: Wickrematunga's daughter and sister mourn over the murdered journalist's body)

Just over a year ago, prominent Sri Lankan newspaper editor, and staunch critic of the incumbent Rajapaksa administration, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was murdered.

According to Reporters without Borders, the Rajapaksa administration blocks investigations into the murder of journalists. Certainly, the investigation into Wickrematunge's death has stalled, and a number of other journalists, including his widow, have fled the country in fear since his death.

Rajapaksa’s murder is only one, albeit very prominent, example of the extreme restriction of press freedom by the Sri Lankan government. 

In November, 2008, a group of masked men, forcibly entered the printing press of Sunday Leader, Morning Leader and Irudina Sinhala weekly and set fires, damaging printing machines and copies of newspapers printed ready for distribution. 

The state has in the past blocked transmission of BBC programs which contained content the government disliked. BBC World Service stopped its broadcast in both Tamil and Sinhalese, fearing reprisals against its reporters.

In August 2009, eight months after Wickrematunge's murder, Tamil journalist Jayaprakash Tissainayagam was found guilty of aiding terrorism and sentenced to 20 years in prison. 

Following this, Poddala Jayantha, a prominent media-rights activist, was forced to leave Sri Lanka due to ongoing threats. 

The atmosphere of fear and intimidation towards journalists critical of the government is so great, that prior to his murder, Lasantha Wickrematunge wrote an article entitled ‘Then They Came for Me’, which was published in his paper, the Sunday Leader, after his death. 

Wickrematunge said:

“Violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship”…

“It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government's sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me”…

“As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: most of them are now dead, imprisoned without trial or exiled in far-off lands”…

“Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried”.

The letter can be read in its entirety here