Sri Lanka rejects fresh war crimes allegations


Sri Lanka's High Commissioner to Australia rejects calls for an independent investigation into allegations of war crimes.

(Transcript from World News Radio)

Sri Lanka's High Commissioner to Australia says his country's civil war has nothing to do with the rest of the world and there's no need for an independent investigation into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Sri Lanka is under pressure from countries including Britain and Canada to hold such an inquiry and the United Nations Human Rights Council is due to consider a new resolution on the issue next month.

Greg Dyett reports.

It was the British Prime Minister David Cameron who gave Sri Lanka a March 2014 deadline when he was in the country last November for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

Mr Cameron infuriated the Sri Lankan government by meeting with Tamil representatives during a short visit to the northern Jaffna peninsula, the scene of some of the worst fighting during the civil war.

The British PM demanded Sri Lanka do much more to address allegations of war crimes.

"And it means credible transparent and independent investigations into alleged war crimes and let me be very clear: if that investigation is not completed by March then I will use our position on the UN Human Rights Council to work with the UN Human Rights Commissioner and call for a full, credible and independent international inquiry."

And that's exactly what a Sydney-based lawyers' organisation believes is needed.

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre has drawn Sri Lanka's ire with a report that accuses the country's security forces of committing the majority of the alleged war crimes during the final months of the country's civil war in 2009.

A report commissioned by the United Nations in 2011 found both the Sri Lankan security forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels they were fighting were likely to have committed war crimes against civilians in the final phases of the war.

The Chief Executive of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, Edward Santow, says the report bases its allegations in part from 30 interviews it conducted, including with Sri Lankans living in Australia.

"The first step we took was to collect and analyse all of the publicly available information on some of these key allegations, looking at the previous reports, material in the public domain and so on. And then we also took new evidence from eyewitnesses. But we engaged also some experts such as forensic experts and so on to assess precisely what took place and in a factual sense that gave us a much more detailed picture of some of the key alleged crimes."

Mr Santow says perhaps the worst allegation levelled at Sri Lanka concerns indiscriminate artillery attacks on areas where civilians were sheltering.

"The corralling of civilians into what were called no fire zones, essentially civilian areas that would be protected and then a campaign of indiscriminate artillery bombardment was carried out in those areas and that led to horrific loss of life and injury among civilians. On the basis of our evidence it seems that there's a reasonable suspicion that war crimes and crimes against humanity took place."

Sri Lanka's High Commissioner to Australia, Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, categorically rejects those claims.

"Sri Lankan government did not, I repeat, did not (and) I speak with authority because I was a military commander at that time commanding the Navy, did not resort to genocide, did not resort to crimes against humanity. Yes we fought a brutal conflict because civilians were involved there could have been unfortunate, some victims but never, ever they were targeted as a system, so these are absolutely false allegations."

And the High Commissioner says there's a disproportionate focus on the final phases of the war.

"Why only the last stage of the conflict? What happened for 30 years? Where were these champions of human rights operating when the innocent children were sliced like a slice of bread while worshipping? Where were (they)? Tell me, how come they kept away from these atrocities?"

Admiral Samarasinghe says the Public Interest Advocacy Centre report is designed to put pressure on the Sri Lankan government ahead of next month's UN Human Rights Council meeting.

That's something which the Centre's Edward Santow denies.

"We're certainly not part of any campaign. What we've done is we have carried out an investigation that we hope provides useful information for international decision makers and that's primarily states who are members of the UN Human Rights Council to make their own decision about what should be the next step to achieve accountability. We've followed the allegations both to the Sri Lankan government but also to the Tamil Tigers and we feel that in order to get a lasting peace and reconciliation for the people of Sri Lanka there needs to be full accountability and that's as much as lesson from history as it is something specific to the Sri Lankan conflict."

Thisara Samarasinghe says Sri Lanka is still dealing with the aftermath of the civil war, and some people will be held accountable for wrongdoing.

"We had an internal conflict. We fought that internally. It's an internal matter. It has nothing to do with the rest of the world and we have investigated internally. (The) Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission has been held by a lot of people and we are finding certain wrongdoings and we are going to investigate and punish them. Already there have been some punishments already delivered to some of the people who were found guilty. So Sri Lanka is a democratic country. There is a rule of law applies. There is a judiciary working and why should another country put pressure on Sri Lanka for an international investigation?"

The Australian government is choosing not to back the calls for an independent, international investigation.

The Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has released a statement saying Australia has consistently urged Sri Lanka to ensure all allegations are investigated and prosecuted in a transparent and independent manner.

She says any future formal investigation would need to be agreed to by the international community and would be a matter for relevant bodies at the time.

Source: World News Australia