(New York) - Governments should decline the invitation to attend a Sri Lankan military conference that seeks to legitimize the unlawful killing of thousands of civilians during the armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Human Rights Watch said today.
The Sri Lankan government has invited 54 countries to its "Seminar on Defeating Terrorism: The Sri Lankan Experience" from May 31 to June 2, 2011 in Colombo, the capital. The conference website says Sri Lankan military officials and panelists will "share their knowledge on Counter Insurgency and enumerate contributory factors in militarily defeating the LTTE."
"Sri Lanka's self-proclaimed ‘model' of counterinsurgency included repeatedly shelling civilians, targeting hospitals, and trying to prevent the world from finding out about it," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This conference is nothing more than a public relations exercise to whitewash abuses. No professional, law-abiding military should take part in this farce."
In April, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a report by a panel of experts that concluded that both government forces and the 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." The panel found 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 said that as many as 40,000 civilians were killed in the final months of the conflict, which ended in May 2009.
The Sri Lankan government contends that it pursued a "humanitarian rescue operation" with a policy of "zero civilian casualties" during the final months of the conflict, in which more than 300,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were trapped in the fighting. Shortly after the war ended, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said there was "no violation of human rights. There were no civilian casualties." The army chief, Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya, said recently that all allegations of violations are "unfounded and baseless."
Sri Lankan government officials have touted the Sri Lankan "model" of counterinsurgency to other countries. However, the expert panel, confirming earlier findings by Human Rights Watch, other national and international organizations, and the US State Department, concluded that government forces killed civilians through widespread and indiscriminate shelling, attacked known hospitals and medical clinics, and deprived civilians in the war zone of humanitarian aid. The panel also found that government forces summarily executed detainees, raped women in custody, and forcibly disappeared others.
The panel also corroborated findings that the LTTE used civilians as "human shields," killed civilians as they tried to flee LTTE control, deployed military equipment close to civilians, recruited children, used forced labor, and conducted suicide attacks against civilians.
The panel called on the Sri Lankan government to carry out genuine investigations and recommended that the UN create an independent international mechanism to monitor the government's implementation of the panel recommendations, conduct an independent investigation, and collect and safeguard evidence. Instead of acting on the report's findings, the Sri Lankan government called the report "illegal, ... biased, baseless and unilateral," and began a diplomatic campaign to block international action on the report's recommendations.
Rather than seeking accountability for abuses, the Sri Lankan government has called for a "re-evaluation of the rule of military engagement" in fighting terrorist groups, presumably to allow governments to ignore longstanding laws of war in counterinsurgency operations.
Human Rights Watch said that the first step toward learning lessons from Sri Lanka's war should be for UN member states to set up an independent international mechanism to conduct investigations in accordance with the panel's recommendations.
"There are important lessons to be learned from the defeat of the LTTE, a cruel and brutal insurgency," Adams said. "But these lessons will not be learned as long as the Sri Lankan government distorts the truth and tries to keep its atrocities hidden."
List of Countries Invited to the Seminar
The Sri Lankan government has listed the 54 countries invited on the conference's website. A list of 30 countries that the government expected to attend was published on the website in April and is provided below. Australian and Sweden, both on the list, have said that they will not attend. This list was later removed from the website, and Human Rights Watch has not been able to confirm with the listed countries whether the information is accurate.
Republic of Korea