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Edward Mortimer Headshot

Is This Ban's 'Never Again' Moment?

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We failed to prevent a massacre in Sri Lanka. We must not fail to seek justice for it.

'Never again' is the promise that has followed the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda and Srebrenica; issued each time with outrage and contrition, and, in recent years, a report on the failure of the international community to act. Kofi Annan commissioned one such report in 1999 on the Rwandan genocide, declaring: "Of all my aims as [UN] Secretary-General, there is none to which I feel more deeply committed than that of enabling the UN never again to fail in protecting a civilian population". Less than five years later, the UN was unable to galvanise international action in Darfur. Ten years later it failed to prevent tragedy unfolding in the final stages of Sri Lanka's long-running civil war.

On 27 July, Channel 4 News screened an interview with a soldier reported to have served with the Sri Lankan army, who claimed that government forces actively targeted civilians and buried large numbers in mass graves. He described witnessing soldiers "shoot people at random, stab people, rape them, cut their tongues out [and] cut women's breasts off". This is the latest blow to the Government of Sri Lanka's (GoSL) efforts to portray its May 2009 defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as a triumph over terrorism - a humanitarian operation that freed its Tamil citizens from this ruthless terrorist outfit. Many world leaders seemed to accept this version: the GoSL had managed to end some three decades of conflict and crush the LTTE, a group consistently criticised by the UN and NGOs for its use of suicide bombings, child soldiers, torture and extortion, and this was a matter for congratulation rather than skepticism or inquiry.

But at what price? International alarm bells should have started ringing in autumn 2008, when the GoSL asked aid agencies to leave the conflict zone ahead of a major military push. Only the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was able to remain, though it too was later squeezed out. Nonetheless, accounts of the devastating consequences of the government's push began to seep out, countering the official narrative of military success with 'zero civilian casualties'. So the GoSL ramped up its long-standing war on the press. In January 2009 alone a prominent newspaper editor was assassinated, a TV station attacked and another journalist stabbed.

But the government couldn't silence everyone. In early 2009 eyewitnesses and photos betrayed the suffering of the 330,000 civilians trapped in the ever-shrinking battleground. Encouraged to move into government-declared 'no fire zones', they were repeatedly shelled by the army, which systematically targeted food distribution lines and hospitals. Some who tried to flee were shot by the LTTE. While the UN spoke officially about 7,000 dead, the London Times, citing a UN source, put the figure at 20,000. In April 2011, a panel of experts convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that a death toll of as high as 40,000 could not be ruled out - some five times the number of those who died in the Srebrenica massacre. The GoSL meanwhile continued to maintain that it had not killed a single civilian.

The pageantry and triumphalism that followed the GoSL's victory should have signalled what was to come: the appalling treatment of those who survived. Displacement camps were run like prisons, or worse. Reports emerged of sexual violence, shortages of food and medical supplies, and reprisals, including executions and disappearances, against those suspected to have been LTTE fighters. International officials, including Mr Ban, were whisked round one camp in carefully stage-managed visits that allowed little time for speaking with survivors. Even so, after seeing the camp, Mr Ban said: "I have travelled around the world and visited similar places, but this is by far the most appalling scenes [sic] I have seen."

With good reason. Despite the GoSL's efforts to make this a 'war without witness', these people and their relatives had horrifying stories to tell. For two years the government managed with some success to rubbish their testimonies, and the international community was largely willing to play along. But now it seems that the sheer amount of credible evidence has reached a tipping point.

Civilians were not the only witnesses in the conflict zone. In June 2011, Channel 4 - which has doggedly pursued this story, largely ignored by the rest of the media - broadcast a documentary with a series of clips filmed by government soldiers. Sri Lanka's Killing Fields contains what is possibly the most disturbing footage ever screened on British television. It depicts what appear to be soldiers shooting LTTE fighters and civilians; dragging naked bodies along the ground and piling them in a truck; bullying comrades into executing prisoners; filming male and female corpses, some showing signs of sexual violence; and using explicit and dehumanising language when referring to their victims. The clips have been independently verified by a number of experts and appear to tally with government records of some of those identified in the films, such as LTTE television presenter Lsaipriya.

This footage followed the damning report by Mr Ban's panel of experts referred to above. The report found credible allegations indicating that "a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law was committed both by the GoSL and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity", and called for an international investigation. The panel said that "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". It concluded that the majority of civilians killed died at the hands of GoSL forces.

The report also called on Mr Ban to conduct a review of the actions of the UN during and after the conflict, regarding the "implementation of its humanitarian and protection mandates". While in 2009 UN officials had repeatedly expressed concern over Sri Lanka and called for a ceasefire, it was leaks by UN staff, not official statements, that betrayed the true gravity of the situation. The rest of the international community performed even worse. Some countries echoed the UN's concerns but did not take action. Others, notably China and Russia, were keen to promote the GoSL's rhetoric - one reason why the Security Council failed to act despite briefings from UN staff. The UN Human Rights Council did act, but only to issue a resolution congratulating [sic] Sri Lanka on its conduct. States such as South Africa, Brazil, Cuba, India and Pakistan voted for it. Contrast this with the reaction to the situation in Libya earlier this year.

Mr Ban should be commended, for setting up his panel despite fierce resistance by the GoSL, but he has not been forceful enough in taking forward its recommendations. He says he needs authorisation by an intergovernmental body such as the Security Council or Human Rights Council to set up an investigation. Yet he has chosen not to formally transmit the report to those bodies. China and Russia are said to be the likely causes of this approach - Ban needed their support to secure a second term as Secretary-General - but other countries aren't challenging it either.

The willingness of China and Russia to support Sri Lanka shouldn't be exaggerated - 'genocide-supporter' is a sobriquet that no one covets. China allowed the Security Council to refer Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court even though Sudan was its sixth-largest oil supplier and a major importer of Chinese weapons.But even if China and Russia remain firm, that cannot excuse other countries' failure to speak out.

Despite internal pressure, Indian leaders have been reluctant to take a firm stance on Sri Lanka. Others, including the UK and US, continue, at least publicly, to hide behind the GoSL's domestic inquiry mechanism, the 'Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission', although it is deeply flawed (it does not even have a mandate to look at gross human rights violations) and serious questions have been raised about its impartiality. Most independent experts believe it is little more than an attempt to avoid censure. Sri Lanka has a long history of inquiries that have achieved little or nothing.

Meanwhile, the evidence mounts and the need for an independent investigation grows more urgent. Many experts believe that the GoSL has spent the last two years trying to destroy evidence of its actions, in particular in the tiny strip of land on which some 130,000 civilians were trapped. There are signs that the international community's silence has set a dangerous precedent. Rights organisations such as the International Crisis Group have warned that the so-called 'Sri Lanka model' of scorched-earth tactics, used seemingly with impunity, is being actively exported to other countries. A recent military seminar in Colombo to 'learn lessons' from the government's victory was attended not only by senior officials from many repressive developing-country regimes but also by representatives of the US armed forces.

Finally, there is Sri Lanka's deeply worrying trajectory. More than two years after the end of the conflict, draconian emergency and anti-terror laws remain in place. Journalists, political opponents and human rights defenders continue to be harassed, and public institutions and the rule of law eroded. Even though most of the civilians held in camps have now been released, many of them are in transit locations or destitute and struggling. Some 3,000 LTTE suspects are still being held without charge or access to lawyers. Meanwhile the north of the country has been militarised, with the army controlling all aspects of daily life. Political activities have been suppressed and killings, disappearances and sexual violence remain frequent. Recent local election results show that Tamils in the area have little confidence in the Rajapaksa regime. Most importantly, no progress has been made on a political solution, without which reconciliation remains impossible.

What happened in 2009 in Sri Lanka was merely the brutal climax of a long crescendo of violence. While all the country's communities have suffered, Sri Lanka's Tamil civilians have borne the brunt: subjugated by the LTTE, which progressively repressed the people it was supposed to be representing and made them synonymous with terrorists; and brutalised by successive Sinhalese governments, which at best pandered to aggressive majoritarianism, and at worst engaged in state-sponsored violence. This week, Tamils will be remembering the dark days of July 1983, when Sinhalese mobs rioted, leaving 1,000 Tamils dead and a staggering 150,000 displaced. Nearly three decades later, they continue to suffer.

It is clear that the international community failed to protect Sri Lanka's civilians in 2009, including from what appear to have been widespread war crimes and crimes against humanity. The least it can do now is to insist on an international investigation. We must do more than look back with outrage and contrition, reading yet another report commissioned by a UN Secretary-General pointing to our failings. Sri Lanka should become not another hollow 'never again' but the starting point for a real change in the world's response to genocide and mass atrocities.