WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States is increasing pressure on Sri Lanka to investigate the deaths of thousands of civilians at the end of its civil war. Human rights groups contend a Sri Lankan government commission has demonstrated no intent of doing it.
The Senate passed a resolution this past week urging an international investigation of war crimes allegations. The State Department has yet to go that far, but said Friday that pressure to do so would grow if Sri Lanka should fail to investigate the abuses properly.
The quarter-century-long Sri Lankan conflict had a bloody conclusion in 2009, when ethnic Sinhalese-dominated government forces cornered the last Tamil Tiger rebels on a sliver of land in the northeast of the island nation.
About 300,000 Tamil civilians were caught in the climactic battle. Amnesty International says 7,000 to 40,000 are estimated to have died in the final five months as the two sides exchanged artillery and other fire. No independent group can say with certainty how many perished.
Journalists, human rights activists and all but a few humanitarian workers were barred from the battle zone.
The government in Colombo appointed a “Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission” last year, which has taken evidence from ethnic minority Tamils, government officials, politicians, civil and religious leaders and former rebels. International rights groups have refused to testify before it, saying the commission is pro-government and has no mandate to investigate the killings.
Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, said the U.S. wanted to see a proper investigation into abuses by both sides in the conflict and was giving the Sri Lankan commission the chance to do so.
“We hope the Sri Lankans will themselves do this, but if they are not willing to take the accountability issue seriously, then there will be pressure from the international community to look at some kind of international option,” Blake, who was serving as U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka at the end of the war, told The Associated Press.
According to a diplomatic cable published by the WikiLeaks website, Blake’s successor as ambassador, Patricia Butenis, reported in January 2010 that there was little hope of Sri Lanka pressing for accountability as responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with senior civilian and military leaders. That included President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gen. Sarath Fonseka, who was army chief at the end of the war but is now a jailed opposition leader.
Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., who introduced the Senate resolution, said that a “state of denial” exists in the Sri Lankan government that is “not helpful” in achieving accountability for the bloodshed. He said the government, including its leaders, “has to be willing to subject itself to scrutiny.”
Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Ministry said Friday that “motivated groups” target influential bodies such as the Senate to persuade them “to adopt ill-founded positions.” A ministry statement defended the Sri Lankan commission’s work and said the attorney-general could institute criminal proceedings based on material it collects.
But Jim McDonald, Sri Lanka specialist for Amnesty International USA, said there was little point in waiting for the commission to complete its work, due in May, before opening an international probe. McDonald said the commission was failing even to challenge official assertions that government forces did not kill civilians.
“It’s not really looking hard at what happened during the war and the thousands of civilians killed.” McDonald said. “The commission is being used by the Sri Lankan government to deflect international pressure.”