The UN’s top human rights official has called for the creation of a special court, including foreign magistrates and investigators, to look into atrocities committed during Sri Lanka’s civil war.
Announcing a long-awaited report aimed at helping Sri Lanka reconcile, Zeid Raad al-Hussein pointed to “horrific” abuses including torture, executions, sexual abuse by security forces; and suicide attacks, assassinations and recruitment of child soldiers by rebels.
Government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels “most likely” committed war crimes, the report said.
Mr al-Hussein’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) found “Numerous” unlawful killings between 2002 and 2011, allegedly committed by both sides as well as by paramilitary groups linked to the government forces. Tamil politicians, humanitarian workers, journalists and ordinary civilians were among the alleged victims of Sri Lankan security forces and associated paramilitaries.
The OHCHR reports a “discernible” pattern of killings, for instance, in the vicinity of security force checkpoints and military bases, and also of extrajudicial killings of individuals while in the custody of security forces, including people who were captured or surrendered at the end of the conflict.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) also reportedly killed Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese civilians, through indiscriminate suicide bombings and mine attacks, as well as assassinations of individuals including public officials, academics and dissenting Tamil political figures.
One finding of the OHCHR’s investigation was the extent to which sexual violence was committed against detainees, often extremely brutally, by the Sri Lankan security forces, with men as likely to be victims as women.
Testimony from 30 survivors of sexual violence who were interviewed by the OHCHR indicates that incidents of sexual violence were not isolated acts but part of a “deliberate policy” to inflict torture, following similar patterns and using similar tools.
The report describes sexual torture which occurred during interrogation sessions, and also patterns of rape, much of which appeared to occur outside of interrogations sessions. Sexual torture was performed in a wide range of detention locations by different security forces, both during and after the conflict.
Not a single perpetrator of sexual violence related to the armed conflict is so far known to have been convicted.
The OHCHR says enforced disappearances affected tens of thousands of Sri Lankans for decades, including throughout the 26-year armed conflict with the LTTE.
In particular, the OHCHR said, there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that a large number of individuals who surrendered during the final phase of the war were disappeared, and remain unaccounted for.
“Brutal” use of torture by the Sri Lankan security forces was widespread throughout the decade covered by the report, and in particular during the immediate aftermath of the conflict.
Some of the more commonly used centres had rooms that were set up with torture equipment, illustrating the “premeditated and systematic nature” of the use of torture.
The OHCHR also found that the recruitment of children was widespread by the LTTE.
Extensive recruitment and use of children in armed conflict by the LTTE and by the paramilitary Karuna group, which supported the Government following its spilt from the LTTE in 2004, was also documented.
Children were often recruited by force from homes, schools, temples and checkpoints, and, after basic training were sent to the frontlines.
According to numerous reports, in the last few months of the conflict, the LTTE increasingly recruited children below the age of 15.
The OHCHR also states that there are reasonable grounds to believe that many attacks during the last phase of the war did not comply with international humanitarian law principles on the conduct of hostilities, particularly the principle of distinction.
The report documents repeated shelling by Government forces of hospitals and humanitarian facilities in the densely populated ‘No Fire Zones,’ which the Government itself had announced but which were inside areas controlled by the LTTE.
The report adds that the Government placed restrictions on freedom of movement of humanitarian personnel and activities, and may have deliberately blocked the delivery of sufficient food aid and medical supplies in the Vanni in the Northern Province, which may amount to the use of starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare.
In the aftermath of the war, the government also failed to meet international standards in the detention of internally displaced people (IDP’s).
Almost 300,000 IDPs were deprived of their liberty in camps for periods far beyond what is permissible under international law, the OHCHR says.
The report comes as the US prepares to co-sponsor a resolution at the UN human rights council in Geneva seeking to improve accountability in Sri Lanka.
Despite pledges by the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena to pursue accountability domestically, the criminal justice system was not up to the huge task alone.
The OHCHR has called on Colombo to remove from office military and security force personnel and any other officials “where there are reasonable grounds to believe that they were involved in human rights violations” in the 26-year war that ended in 2009.
The report named no suspects, saying it was a human rights investigation, not a criminal investigation.
Rights groups and some governments want an international investigation, but Sri Lanka has resisted.
The civil war ended when government forces defeated Tamil Tiger rebels.
The UN estimates that at least 80,000 people were killed.