The authorities in Sri Lanka are under mounting pressure to agree to an independent inquiry into a military operation against Tamil rebels, after a UN panel found "credible allegations" that the government committed war crimes and offences against humanity.
A leaked report by a team established by UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, suggests government troops systematically shelled civilians it had encouraged to gather in so-called "no-fire zones", at hospitals, at the UN's hub, and even close to an area where aid workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were coming to collect wounded people from the beach. It says the government allowed this even though it knew from its own intelligence the impact of the repeated bombardment.
The panel, which calls for an independent international inquiry, concludes that "tens of thousands" of civilians lost their lives, and that most casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by government shelling. It says the government sought to intimidate and silence the media and its critics, and even resorted to abduction, using "white vans" to make people disappear. The report says there is evidence that Tamil rebels also committed war crimes and that they used civilians as human shields, shot dead those who tried to flee the war zone, and forcibly recruited teenagers to become fighters.
The damning report, parts of which have been leaked to media in Sri Lanka, is likely to be the most comprehensive insight yet into the bloody final stages of the 2009 offensive that crushed the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, known as the Tamil Tigers) and brought an end to a decades-long civil war that had taken more than 70,000 lives. At the time, there was widespread international criticism of the way the government had failed to protect Tamil civilians caught in the war zone. But the authorities dismissed this and President Mahinda Rajapaksa was re-elected the following year on the back of his victory over the rebels.
The UN has yet to make public the report or comment on the recommendations of the three-member panel. However, Gordon Weiss, a former spokesman for the UN in Sri Lanka who served in the capital, Colombo, during the offensive against the LTTE, said the report "damns the government of Sri Lanka's so-called war on terror, which incidentally killed many thousands of civilians. The Tamil Tigers were equally rotten in their disdain for life."
The Sri Lankan government has dismissed the findings. "The government finds this report fundamentally flawed in many respects," said the Foreign Ministry in a statement. "Among other deficiencies, the report is based on patently biased material, which is presented without any verification. The government will, in due course, comment in detail on the contents of the report."
The UN panel was established last year by the Secretary General after failing to persuade Mr Rajapaksa to order an independent inquiry into what may have taken place. At the time, the Sri Lankan authorities described the panel's formation as "an unwarranted and unnecessary interference with a sovereign nation". It said it would provide visas for the panel members to visit Sri Lanka only if they were attending the government's own "inquiry" – the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which human rights groups and, indeed, the UN panel said lacks credibility.
As a result, the panel members – Marzuki Darusman, a former Indonesian attorney general, Yasmin Sooka, a South African human rights expert, and Steven Ratner, a US lawyer – were unable to visit the island to gather evidence.
During the offensive, the Sri Lankan authorities insisted they were operating a policy of zero civilian casualties, and denied reports that troops were shelling the no-fire zone. The government insisted photographs from the war zone published by Tamil groups and others were propaganda. The testimony of doctors in the war zone who told journalists of the casualties, and the suffering of up to 330,000 men, women and children scrabbling to survive in a tiny strip of land, was dismissed. After the war, the medics were put in front of a press conference where they recanted what they had previously said.
Yet the UN panel says it has "found credible allegations which, if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law were committed both by the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity". It adds: "Indeed, the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace."
Precisely how many people died in the final stages of the offensive remains unclear. At the time the operation was going on, the UN said it had evidence that up to 10,000 had died. Mr Weiss later told broadcasters up to 40,000 people may have lost their lives. The Sri Lankan authorities have always denied both figures. Yet the panel's report says the authorities in Colombo deliberately underestimated the number of civilians who were in the conflict zone. It adds: "Tens of thousands lost their lives from January to May 2009, many of whom died anonymously in the carnage of the final few days."
In the last weeks of the military operation, countless thousands of civilians were living in bunkers dug into the sands of Mullaitivu beach in the far north-east of Sri Lanka, which media and aid organisations had been strictly prevented from visiting. Desperately short of food, water and medicine, the civilians were shelteringfrom the sun under tarpaulins, scrambling out when the shelling let up to scavenge for supplies and to bury the dead. Many were killed by the LTTE as they tried to escape.
The offensive ended in May 2009, when advancing troops broke through the LTTE's final defences and thousands of civilians were able to pour out. They were taken to refugee camps set up behind barbed wire in the north of the country. Some were held for up to a year before being allowed to return to their villages.
Among those killed in the final stages of the war was Velupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader, who was shot in the head. There was persuasive evidence that several senior LTTE leaders were shot and killed as they tried to surrender.
It is unclear what immediate impact the UN report will have. In some circles President Rajapaksa has been praised for his decisive crushing of the Tamil rebels, who had launched a bloody campaign for a Tamil homeland in the north and east of the country. Last week, US Congressman Joe Wilson called on Capitol Hill for a renewal of US-Sri Lankan relations, and commended the government's victory over "terrorist forces within its borders".
Mr Rajapaksa called off a visit to the UK last November when he was to have addressed the Oxford Union after Tamil activists threatened to seek his arrest. Many commentators and human rights groups have denounced what they say is a continuing assault against free speech and independent journalism in Sri Lanka. Others have complained that the President has failed to seek national reconciliation.
Tom Hockley, a UN official in Sri Lanka, said yesterday that his team had not seen the report, other than what had appeared in The Island, a Sri Lankan newspaper. The UN Secretary General said: "It is deeply regrettable that parts of the report found their way prematurely to a Sri Lankan newspaper. The full report will be released next week."