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(New York) - United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should act on a UN Panel of Experts' recommendations to establish an international independent investigation into abuses during Sri Lanka's armed conflict that ended in May 2009, Human Rights Watch said today. Ban's statement on April 25, 2011, indicating the need for Sri Lankan government consent or action by an intergovernmental body should not place an unnecessary obstacle to establishing a justice mechanism, Human Rights Watch said.

The panel's report, published on April 25, 2011, concluded that both government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) conducted military operations "with flagrant disregard for the protection, rights, welfare and lives of civilians and failed to respect the norms of international law" during the final months of Sri Lanka's 26-year-long war. The panel also concluded that "Sri Lanka's efforts, nearly two years after the end of the war, fall dramatically short of international standards on accountability and fail to satisfy either the joint commitment of the President of Sri Lanka and the Secretary-General, or Sri Lanka's legal duties."

"The Expert Panel's finding that the government and Tamil Tigers committed abuses and that the government has failed to hold its forces accountable shows the need for an international investigation," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Russia and China should stop blocking efforts to find justice for victims in Sri Lanka and support the panel's recommendations."

Russia and China have previously opposed UN Security Council discussion of alleged violations in Sri Lanka and signaled again on April 18 their reluctance to have Ban take further action on this issue. Human Rights Watch called on all UN member states to support carrying out the panel's recommendations.

Ban established the three-member Panel of Experts in May 2010 to advise him on the next steps he should take for accountability in Sri Lanka after President Mahinda Rajapaksa failed to honor a commitment that he made shortly after the war to investigate alleged abuses.

The Panel of Experts, consisting of three internationally recognized experts in international law, examined "reports, documents and other written accounts by the various agencies, departments, funds, offices and programmes of the United Nations and other inter-governmental organizations, [nongovernmental organizations] and individuals, such as journalists and experts on Sri Lanka," as well as satellite imagery, photographs, and video materials. It reviewed submissions received in response to notifications on the UN website, and it consulted a number of individuals with expertise or experience related to the armed conflict. The panel included allegations as credible "when based on primary sources that the Panel deemed relevant and trustworthy. These primary sources were corroborated by other kinds of information, both direct and indirect."

Panel attempts to engage with the Sri Lankan government were rejected. The government responded in writing to questions, but did not permit the panel to visit the country and meet with government officials and witnesses to abuses.

The panel found that the LTTE used civilians as "human shields" and as a buffer against attack, killed civilians as they tried to flee LTTE control, used military equipment in the proximity of civilians, forcibly recruited children, used forced labor, and killed civilians through suicide attacks.

The panel also concluded that government forces killed civilians through widespread and indiscriminate shelling, attacked hospitals and humanitarian objects, and deprived people in the war-zone of humanitarian aid. The report states: "The Government shelled on a large scale in three consecutive No Fire Zones, where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate, even after indicating that it would cease the use of heavy weapons.... The Government systematically shelled hospitals on the frontlines. All hospitals in the [war-zone] were hit by mortars and artillery, some of them were hit repeatedly, despite the fact that their locations were well-known to the Government."

The panel also found that some people whom the government separated out from displaced civilians during screening were summarily executed, some women may have been raped, and others may have been subjected to enforced disappearance. All residents of the region who were displaced in the final months of the conflict were detained in closed camps, where some were interrogated and subjected to torture.

The panel said that its finding "stands in stark contrast to the position of the Government, which continues to hold that it conducted a ‘humanitarian rescue operation' with a policy of ‘zero civilian casualties.'"  The report concludes: "Most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by Government shelling." High-ranking government officials, including President Rajapaksa and Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, have repeatedly denied that government forces caused civilian casualties.

The report includes 16 satellite images, which show that hospitals were repeatedly hit by artillery fire and that government artillery batteries were constantly redirected to target the three government-declared No Fire Zones.

The panel found that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, a government-created body frequently touted by the government as its accountability mechanism, is "deeply flawed, does not meet international standards for an effective accountability mechanism and, therefore, does not and cannot satisfy the joint commitment of the President of Sri Lanka and the Secretary-General to an accountability process." The panel noted that the government's approach to accountability, which focuses exclusively on abuses by the LTTE, lacks "any notion of accountability for its own conduct in the prosecution of the war."

The panel recommended that the Sri Lankan government open "genuine investigations" and that the secretary-general immediately proceed to establish an independent international mechanism to conduct investigations into the alleged violations.

The Sri Lankan government, on its official news portal, stated that it "strongly rejected" the report, calling it "illegal," "biased, baseless and unilateral." President Rajapaksa has called for demonstrations on May 1 to show solidarity with the armed forces. The government has begun a diplomatic campaign to put pressure on the UN not to act on the panel's recommendations.

"Sadly, the Sri Lankan government's immediate dismissal of the report as biased demonstrates that there is no chance of a serious domestic justice process," Adams said. "The only hope for victims of the conflict is an international investigation leading to prosecutions. Ban should lose no time in setting one up."

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