GENEVA (Reuters) - Between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians were killed in the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war but a national inquiry has failed so far to investigate war crimes by both the army and Tamil rebels, Amnesty International said on Wednesday.
The London-based human rights group called on the United Nations to establish a credible international investigation into the killings at the end of the quarter-century conflict in 2009.
Although a national commission set up by President Mahinda Rajapaksa has heard evidence of serious violations — including what Amnesty called proof the army shelled civilian areas and the use of human shields by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — the official inquiry has failed to recommend any prosecutions and is “fundamentally flawed”, it said.
“This was a particularly bloody final phase, tens of thousands of people were killed and injured,” Saman Zarifi, director of Amnesty’s Asia Programme, told a news briefing.
“Amnesty International’s own investigation suggests that at least 10,000 and quite likely around 20,000 — and there are credible allegations that it could have been as high as 40,000 people — were killed in those final phases when around 300,000 civilians were trapped between the Tamil Tigers who were effectively using them as human shields and the Sri Lanka government which launched massive aerial bombardments and artillery shelling in an increasingly small area,” he said.
The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is due to present its report to the Colombo government in mid-November. Amnesty and other major groups rejected an invitation to present evidence to it, saying the inquiry would not be credible and there was no system for witness protection.
“We did not put this report out in order to ambush the Sri Lankan government in any sense. We did it before the final report of the LLRC came out because we’re trying to help the process. We want the LLRC and Sri Lankan government to take their responsibility very seriously, there has to be accountability for both sides of the conflict,” Zarifi said.
“For the people of Sri Lanka, especially for the Tamil community, it is also important to look at what the Tamil Tigers did, not simply what the government did, mostly to the Tamil community. That can only come from a neutral independent inquiry,” he said.
Amnesty, in a nearly 70-page report, said there should be no illusions that the “latest in a long line of failed domestic mechanisms” would deliver justice or reparations for victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both sides.
“This is typical behaviour by the Sri Lankan government to set up a fig leaf inquiry to provide absolutely no accountability once the pressure that led to the establishment of the inquiry wears off,” Zarifi said.
“The decisions to launch attacks and to shell the no-fire-zones, the civilian areas, in the final stages of the war, came all the way from the very top of the Sri Lanka government.”
Asked about prospects for bringing senior Sri Lankan officials before the U.N. war crimes court in the Hague for prosecution, he said: “The government of Sri Lanka is worried and should be worried.”
A report last year by a U.N. panel of international experts found “credible evidence” that both sides had committed war crimes and killed thousands of civilians at the end of the war.
Amnesty accused government forces of causing most of the civilian casualties by shelling no-fire-zones where civilians had been told to gather.
Hospitals and food distribution lines were hit, it said.
The report was based on eyewitness testimony, information from aid workers and transcripts of hearings held by the national inquiry.
The government silenced the media and other critics of the war and rounded up opponents, some through “the use of white vans to abduct and to make people disappear”, Amnesty said.
There was no immediate comment from the government on the report, made available to reporters before its release.
Sri Lanka’s foreign minister G.L. Peiris is on a mission to shore up diplomatic support before a three-week U.N. Human Rights Council session opens on Monday, where the Indian Ocean nation expects to face Western-led pressure for a war crimes probe.
The government rejects the death tolls as vastly inflated by pro-Tiger groups and mathematically impossible. It also says Tiger fighters blended into the civilian population.
“Unfortunately Commissioners failed to ask follow-up questions of witnesses that would have allowed them to lay a foundation for a criminal inquiry,” Amnesty said.
“A few witnesses named individual perpetrators, though the Commissioners did not pursue these claims,” it said, calling the commission “flawed at every level”.
additional reporting by Bryson Hull; editing by Elizabeth Piper