Friday, April 22, 2011

Sri Lanka has reached its "Srebrenica Moment".

THE name "Srebrenica" is synonymous both with war crimes and the long reach of international justice. The parallel is apt when I write that, with the release of a UN report, Sri Lanka has reached its "Srebrenica Moment".

In August 1995, a month after the mass execution of 8000 Muslim boys and men by the Bosnian Serb army, the full proportions of this notorious crime began to break to the wider world. David Rohde, an US reporter, had hiked through frontlines to reach the outskirts of the empty town.

Evidence of the systematic killing of males as they tried to flee the siege lay all about. The journalist wrote of prayer beads, human remains, bullet casings, shopping receipts and clothing scattered like confetti through the fields and forests. There were survivors. For days, weeks and months skeletal wraiths continued to emerge from their woodland hideouts. A young Bosnian friend of mine was Rohde's translator. She spoke with men as they appeared at the edge of forests near the town of Tuzla, held by Bosnian Muslim forces. They listened in disbelief at the stories of those who could barely believe their own tales of survival. They had been shelled, picked off by sniper fire, corralled into groups of hundreds who were then shot and machine-gunned.

Gradually, each dazed survivor tale confirmed the others. US spy planes photographed Bosnian Serb units trying to conceal their crimes by shifting the human refuse of bone, tissue and clothing to even more remote locations such as mine shafts. Rohde confirmed the facts from the ground.

When the graves were uncovered by foreign forensic teams, the pieces literally fell into place. In November, the UN's Hague Tribunal indicted the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. A trophy video of the Scorpion death squad executing crying young men emerged only in 2005. Karadzic was finally arrested in Belgrade in 2008, and sent to The Hague to stand trial. There are thousands of survivors from what a UN panel of judicial experts now alleges is likely one of the 21st century's large-scale war crimes. By January 2009, the army of Sri Lanka had penned the remnants of the Tamil Tiger guerilla forces into a pocket of land the size of New York City. It was the culminating moment of a 30-year civil war. For five months, determined to kill the Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, the army pounded Tiger positions and about 330,000 Tamil civilians.

By then civilians were being held hostage by the rebels, but the army continued its assault. According to the UN report, the army also systematically shelled hospitals and denied humanitarian aid to civilians. It finds credible claims that tens of thousands were killed by shelling.

This was no Libya. The scale of the crime, committed behind the shutters of frontlines that were sealed by the army of Sri Lanka, and from which independent humanitarian workers and journalists were excluded, is just beginning to leak out. Using as a justification the fraternal jingoism of the global war on terror, the government of the President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, unleashed death squads on domestic dissenters and sent gangs to attack newspapers and TV outlets.

It choked off visas for foreign journalists trying to reach the island, and stopped those already there from meaningful access to the battlefield. It dispatched its eloquent English-speaking and Oxbridge-educated emissaries to plead in diplomatic assemblies that its "humanitarian" war was "bloodless". If any civilians were killed, they said, it was the Tigers' doing.

In May 2009, with Prabhakaran dead, the remaining 290,000 people were interned in camps. The government prevented the UN legal experts appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon from visiting Sri Lanka. Many survivors bribed guards and fled abroad, where their testimony formed some of the 4000 submissions to the panel. Sri Lankan soldiers gave information on probable atrocities.

The final UN report, an advance copy of which was provided to the Sri Lankan government, was leaked this week by a Sri Lankan newspaper. The full report of some 200 pages, to be released imminently, dismisses Sri Lanka's domestic judicial process as a decoy, and calls for a full international investigation.

The government of Sri Lanka duped the UN, foreign journalists, diplomats and world leaders. Like the perpetrators of Bosnian crimes, their first line of defence remains a concoction of blanket denial, smooth assurances and indignant bluster.

Two years after the end of the war, foreign reporters and humanitarian workers still do not have access to the alleged crime scene, the final battlefield.

The Sri Lankan government has had ample time to destroy the confetti of evidence.
Meantime, it touts its brand of the war on terror as a self-evident success.
This is a "Srebrenica Moment" for the international community of nations, too. The UN report says that the alleged crimes of both the warring parties and subsequent cover-up by the government constitutes "an assault on the entire system of international law and security".

By that, it means that should the government of Sri Lanka be allowed to get away with it, the system of international justice built on the back of the crimes in Rwanda and Bosnia is weakened.

Srebrenica recalls a painful and costly UN failure. In a month during which the UN swiftly forestalled potentially disastrous internal conflicts in Libya and Ivory Coast, Sri Lanka cannot be allowed to erode the basic tenets of international peace, justice and security.

By Gordon Weiss formerly the UN spokesman in Sri Lanka.

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