The International Crisis Group has called for a United Nations investigation into war crimes committed by the government and Tamil Tiger rebels in the civil war that ended in a paroxysm of bloodshed a year ago. There are many reasons why its call should be heeded.
The ICG has earned respect as an independent, rigorous organisation. In the case of Sri Lanka, the organisation is highlighting a danger that reverberates far beyond the shores of the south Asian island: the message that unbridled force works. That scorched earth tactics which ignore the rights of non-combatants and the rule of law are the best way to resolve deadlock on the battlefield.
Speaking in London this week, Louise Arbour, ICG president and former chief prosecutor of the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, said: “There is an international public interest argument here in denying legitimacy to a very serious attack on and erosion of the laws of war and international humanitarian law”.
The ICG has gathered evidence that tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the last months of the 30-year war, mostly by government shelling, in an offensive that decisively defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
A ruthless organisation led by a megalomaniac, the LTTE pioneered many techniques of modern terrorism and insurgency, from suicide to roadside bombs. The US, no less than China or India, all but turned a blind eye to Colombo’s methods in eradicating the Tigers.
Now, they appear to be giving credence to the pro forma internal inquiry into the war announced by the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Yet, this essentially Sinhalese supremacist government is pressing its advantage in the Tamil north and east, making ethnic reconciliation all but impossible, and fanning the embers of a future insurgency.
This is bad news for the Sinhala majority too. Mr Rajapaksa and his family are not about to turn off the machine that worked against the LTTE. They are using it to consolidate their power and suppress freedom in politics and the media.
There is little to cheer about this victory if the methods by which it was achieved are going to spread – in and outside Sri Lanka. The ICG rightly argues that peace in Sri Lanka demands a measure of justice and calls on the international community to pursue it. It may often be possible for governments to defeat insurgencies if they do not care how many civilians they kill. But can they win the peace?
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