Demonstrators block the entrance of the United Nations office in Colombo on July 7, 2010.

(New York) – Demonstrations led by a Sri Lankan government minister to protest a United Nations expert panel show the government’s open hostility to investigations of alleged war crimes in the Tamil Tiger conflict that ended last year, Human Rights Watch said today.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s creation of and support for the three-person Panel of Experts on justice mechanisms – despite persistent Sri Lankan government opposition – shows important new resolve to promote accountability for war crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

“The demonstrations against the UN’s Colombo compound are a threatening new turn in the Sri Lankan government’s campaign against the UN Panel of Experts,” said Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Anyone who ever thought this government would get serious about investigating wartime atrocities should look at the ruckus being raised over three advisors to the UN secretary-general.”

Since July 6, 2010, the minister for housing and construction, Wimal Weerawansa, has led what were initially several hundred protesters who surrounded the UN compound in Colombo and harassed UN staff, blocking their arrival and departure. The crowds were protesting Ban’s forming of an expert panel to advise him on accountability mechanisms for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the final stages of the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

On July 8, Ban issued a statement finding it “unacceptable that the Sri Lankan authorities have failed to prevent the disruption of the normal functioning of the United Nations offices in Colombo as a result of unruly protests organized and led by a cabinet minister of the Government.” He recalled the UN’s ranking official in Sri Lanka, Neil Buhne, for consultations in New York and closed the UN Development Program’s Asia and Pacific Regional Office in Colombo as a “direct response” to the situation affecting the UN compound.

On July 10, the United States, the European Union, and eight European heads of mission in Colombo issued a joint statement that “Peaceful protest is part of any democracy, but blocking access to the United Nations ... as well as intimidating and harassing UN personnel is a breach of international norms and harmful to Sri Lanka's reputation in the world.”

“That Secretary-General Ban is standing his ground against the anti-UN protests in Colombo is a strong endorsement of the need for justice and accountability in Sri Lanka,” Pearson said. “It’s time the Sri Lankan government started working with Ban, rather than against him.”

Background
Since the end of the quarter-century-long armed conflict in May 2009, the Sri Lankan government has failed to undertake any meaningful investigation of violations of the laws of war. Sri Lankan forces were implicated in numerous indiscriminate attacks on civilians, while the LTTE used civilians as “human shields” and prevented them from fleeing to safer areas. The UN estimates that more than 7,000 civilians died during the final months of the fighting.

Just days after the LTTE’s defeat, President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised Ban that his government would address allegations of abuses, but has failed to do so. The Sri Lankan government has established two ad hoc inquiries, but both lack the mandate to conduct effective investigations.

On March 5, 2010, Ban informed Rajapaksa that he intended to establish a Panel of Experts to advise him on next steps for accountability in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government responded with a campaign that attacked Ban for interfering in the country’s domestic affairs, calling the panel "unwarranted" and "uncalled for." The three-member expert panel, consisting of an Indonesian, a South African, and an American, was appointed in June, though it has not yet convened. The government promptly announced that it would not provide visas to the panel members to visit the country.

Human Rights Watch said that the expert panel should provide the secretary-general with a roadmap – which should be made public – for an independent international investigation to examine laws-of-war violations by both sides during the final months of the Sri Lankan conflict.

“The fracas around the UN headquarters is just the latest episode in the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to ensure nothing is done to bring justice for war crimes,” Pearson said. “The expert panel may be a small step towards an independent international investigation, but it’s a real step forward nonetheless. Governments around the world who have pledged to end impunity for war crimes should back the secretary-general’s efforts to see justice done in Sri Lanka.”