U.N. calls for war crimes court in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan protesters demonstrate in 2014 against a U.N. resolution calling for a war crimes probe.

Story highlights

  • U.N. commissioner for human rights calls for war crimes court in Sri Lanka
  • A 26-year civil war pitting the government against Tamil rebels ended in 2009

(CNN)A top United Nations official has called for establishment of a war crimes court to investigate "horrific" abuses allegedly committed by both the Sri Lankan government and Tamil rebels during the country's 26-year civil war.

"Our investigation has laid bare the horrific level of violations and abuses that occurred in Sri Lanka, including indiscriminate shelling, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, harrowing accounts of torture and sexual violence, recruitment of children and other grave crimes," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said in a news release.
He said creation of a hybrid court, which would integrate international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators, was an essential step toward justice because Sri Lankans distrust the government.
    The Sri Lankan civil war ended in May 2009 with the government crushing the Tamil Tigers in their heartland in the north of the island nation in the Indian Ocean.
    The former president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had resisted an investigation of alleged war crimes, saying it would hurt national reunification efforts. He lost the presidency in January to Maithripala Sirisena but is still involved in Sri Lankan politics.
    "This report is being presented in a new political context in Sri Lanka, which offers grounds for hope," Zeid said. "It is crucial that this historic opportunity for truly fundamental change is not allowed to slip."
    A war crimes court should also look into the government's suppression of critics after the civil war ended, Zeid said.
    The press release said the crimes documented in a U.N. investigation report included:
    Unlawful killings. Sri Lankan security forces killed Tamil politicians, humanitarian workers, journalists and ordinary civilians, with "discernible patterns" of killings near security force checkpoints and military bases, the release said. It said the Tamils killed Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese civilians through suicide bombings, assassinations and mine attacks.
    Sexual and gender-based violence. The Sri Lankan military committed sexual violence against men as well as women detainees, the release said, adding that. "Harrowing testimony from 30 survivors of sexual violence who were interviewed indicates that incidents of sexual violence were not isolated acts but part of a deliberate policy to inflict torture."
    Disappearances. Tens of thousands of Sri Lankans disappeared over the decades, including people who surrendered during the final years of the civil war, the release said.
    Torture. Many military centers had rooms equipped with torture equipment, "including metal bars and poles for beatings, barrels of water used for waterboarding, and pulleys from which victims were suspended," the release said. The existence of the rooms indicated a "premeditated and systematic" use of torture, the U.N. said.
    Forced recruitment of children and adults. The Tamils are accused of abducting children and adults and forcing them to take up arms, the press release said. The paramilitary Karuna group, which supported the government after it split from the Tamils in 2004, is accused of doing the same.
    Denial of humanitarian aid. The government may have blocked the delivery of food aid and medical supplies by humanitarian groups to the Vanni in the northern province, which may amount to the use of starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare, the release said.
    The U.N. commended Sirisena's desire for accountability but noted that people in Sri Lanka are suspicious of the government.
    "The levels of mistrust in state authorities and institutions by broad segments of Sri Lankan society should not be underestimated," Zeid said. "It is for this reason that the establishment of a hybrid special court, integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators, is so essential. A purely domestic court procedure will have no chance of overcoming widespread and justifiable suspicions fuelled by decades of violations, malpractice and broken promises."
    Freedom from Torture, a UK-based human rights organization, welcomed the release of the U.N. report.
    "The UN human rights chief has rightly concluded that Sri Lanka's domestic courts are ill-equipped to prosecute the heinous international crimes exposed by the UN investigation," said Sonya Sceats, director of advocacy and policy at Freedom from Torture, in a statement.
    "Sri Lankan torture survivors in treatment with us are adamant that they cannot trust a purely domestic process and will take comfort from the High Commissioner's warning that there must not be a replay of past broken promises," she said. "Any process that fails to win the confidence of survivors, including from the Tamil minority, is doomed to fail and may set back the common cause of reconciliation."
    Human Rights Watch also urged the UN Human Rights Council to support the proposed hybrid court.
      "UN member states should strongly support the UN High Commissioner's recommendation for a hybrid court as the best way to provide justice for all the victims of Sri Lanka's long civil war," said John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. "The Sri Lankan government should build on the goodwill of the international community and embrace this important initiative."
      The U.N.'s Human Rights Council voted in April 2014 to investigate alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka and tasked the U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights with the job.