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Did a U.S. Ambassador Accuse Sri Lanka's President of War Crimes?
by Charles Homans, Foreign Policy blog, Washington, DC, December 1, 2010
Are we surprised to learn, via WikiLeaks, that American diplomats in Colombo blame Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his top officials for the massacre of tens of thousands (by most estimates) of Tamil civilians during the final months of Sri Lanka's bloody civil war? The goods are in a Jan. 15 cable sent by U.S. Amb. Patricia A. Butenis on the eve of Sri Lanka's presidential elections (which Rajapaksa won handily). Butenis was assessing the country's ability to come to terms with the atrocities committed in the protracted conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers rebel group, which was defeated in May 2009 after nearly three decades of fighting.
In May, the Sri Lankan government announced plans to launch a "truth and reconciliation commission," modeled on South Africa's post-Apartheid investigation, to look into the brutal last phase of the war, in which large numbers of Tamil civilians were trapped between the government and rebel troops. Human rights groups aren't exactly holding their breath for the results of the ongoing inquiry, led as it is by the same government that was allegedly responsible for most of the carnage. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and International Crisis Group -- which released a sweeping and damning report on the war crimes in May -- all turned down invitations to participate. Butenis, it turns out, was similarly nonplussed, writing:
There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power. In Sri Lanka this is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country's senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers and opposition candidate General [Sarath] Fonseka.
This last observation gets headline treatment from the Guardian, and it is notable for Butenis's willingness to name names. But the State Department has been fairly clear, albeit more diplomatic, about what it thinks happened in the spring of 2009, in a report released in March:
The government's respect for human rights declined as armed conflict reached its conclusion. Outside of the conflict zone, the overwhelming majority of victims of human rights violations, such as extrajudicial killings and disappearances, were young male Tamils, while Tamils were estimated to be only 16 percent of the overall population. Credible reports cited unlawful killings by paramilitaries and others believed to be working with the awareness and assistance of the government, assassinations by unknown perpetrators, politically motivated killings, and disappearances.
An August report from State also (cautiously) expressed concern about the integrity of the government's commission. In short, Butenis's assessment is generally consistent with what humanitarian workers on the ground in Sri Lanka at the time of the conflict thought State's position was -- one that may not have been shared by American defense and intelligence personnel, who were believed to be less squeamish about the military campaign against the Tigers.
I asked Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka project director for ICG, about the cable. He says it contains few surprises:
It's certainly consistent with how the embassy and the State Department are looking at the situation. They knew bad things happened -- they're calling them "alleged" war crimes, but I think in a quiet moment they would say they were war crimes. They recognize that that happened. But they don't think there's the space internally for it to be addressed. So I don't think we're learning a whole lot new. What would tell us more, and what will be more interesting, and where the issues are a bit more gray, is what happened during the war -- what did the U.S. government know, and what did it do, or not do, to prevent the worst abuses and suffering?
US embassy cables: Rajapaksa shares responsibility for 2009 Sri Lankan massacre
Friday, 15 January 2010, 12:23
1. (S) SUMMARY: There have been a few tentative steps on accountability for crimes allegedly committed by Sri Lankan troops and civilian officials during the war with the LTTE. President Rajapaksa named a committee to make recommendations to him on the U.S. incidents report by April, and candidate Fonseka has discussed privately the formation of some form of "truth and reconciliation" commission. Otherwise, accountability has not been a high-profile issue -- including for Tamils in Sri Lanka. While Tamils have told us they would like to see some form of accountability, they have been pragmatic in what they can expect and have focused instead on securing greater rights and freedoms, resolving the IDP question, and improving economic prospects in the war-ravaged and former LTTE-occupied areas. Indeed, while they wanted to keep the issue alive for possible future action, Tamil politicians with whom we spoke in Colombo, Jaffna, and elsewhere said now was not time and that pushing hard on the issue would make them "vulnerable." END SUMMARY.
ACCOUNTABILITY AS A POLITICAL ISSUE
2. (S) Accountability for alleged crimes committed by GSL troops and officials during the war is the most difficult issue on our bilateral agenda. (NOTE: Both the State Department Report to Congress on Incidents during the Conflict and the widely read report by the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) also detailed many incidents of alleged crimes perpetrated by the LTTE. Most of the LTTE leadership was killed at the end of the war, leaving few to be held responsible for those crimes. The Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) is holding thousands of mid- and lower-level ex-LTTE combatants for future rehabilitation and/or criminal prosecution. It is unclear whether any such prosecutions will meet international standards. END NOTE.) There have been some tentative steps on accountability on the GSL side. Soon after the appearance of the State Department report, President Rajapaksa announced the formation of an experts' committee to examine the report and to provide him with recommendations on dealing with the allegations. At the end of the year, the president extended the deadline for the committee's recommendations from December 31 until April. For his part, General Fonseka has spoken publicly of the need for a new deal with the Tamils and other minorities. Privately, his campaign manager told the Ambassador that Fonseka had ordered the opposition campaign to begin work planning a "truth and reconciliation" commission (ref B).
3. (S) These tentative steps notwithstanding, accountability has not been a high-profile issue in the presidential election -- other than President Rajapaksa's promises personally to stand up to any international power or body that would try to prosecute Sri Lankan war heroes. While regrettable, the lack of attention to accountability is not surprising. There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power. In Sri Lanka this is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country's senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers and opposition candidate General Fonseka.
THE TAMIL PERSPECTIVE
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4. (S) For different reasons, of course, accountability also has not been a top priority for most Tamils in Sri Lanka. While Tamils have told us they would like to see some form of accountability, they have been pragmatic in what they can expect and have focused instead on securing greater rights and freedoms, resolving the IDP question, and improving economic prospects in the war-ravaged and former LTTE-occupied areas. Indeed, while they wanted to keep the issue alive for possible future action, Tamil leaders with whom we spoke in Colombo, Jaffna, and elsewhere said now was not time and that pushing hard on the issue would make them "vulnerable."
5. (S) The one prominent Tamil who has spoken publicly on the issue is Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP, self-proclaimed presidential candidate, and Prabhakaran relative M.K. Sivajilingam. Breaking from both the TNA mainstream and the pro-government Tamil groups, he launched his campaign because he believed neither the government nor the opposition was adequately addressing Tamil issues. Sivajilingam has focused on creating a de-centralized federal structure in Sri Lanka with separate prime ministers for the Sinhalese and Tamils, but he also has spoken about accountability, demanding an international inquiry to get justice for the deaths and suffering of the Tamil people.
6. (S) Other Tamil politicians have not made public statements on accountability and are generally more pragmatic in their thinking. In our multiple recent discussions with TNA leader R. Sampanthan, he said he believed accountability was important and he welcomed the international community's -- especially the diaspora's -- interest in the issue. But Sampanthan was realistic about the dim prospects for any Sri Lankan government to take up the issue. Granting that governments in power do not investigate their own, Sampanthan nevertheless said it was important to the health of the nation to get the truth out. While he believed the Tamil community was "vulnerable" on the issue and said he would not discuss "war crimes" per se in parliament for fear of retaliation, Sampanthan would emphasize the importance of people knowing the truth about what happened during the war. We also have asked Sampanthan repeatedly for his ideas on an accountability mechanism that would be credible to Tamils and possible within the current political context, but he has not been able to provide such a model.
7. (S) Mano Ganesan, MP and leader of the ethnic Tamil Democratic People's Front (DPF), is a Colombo-based Tamil who counts as supporters many of the well-educated, long-term Colombo and Western Province resident Tamils, and was an early supporter of Fonseka. The general made promises that convinced him that if Fonseka were to win, ethnic reconciliation issues would then be decided by parliament, not the Executive President. On accountability, Ganesan told us that while the issue was significant XXXXXXXXXXXX accountability was a divisive issue and the focus now had to be on uniting to rid the country of the Rajapaksas.
8. (S) TNA MP Pathmini Sithamparanathan told us in mid-December that the true story of what happened in the final weeks of the war would not go away and would come out eventually, but she also said now was not the time for war crimes-type investigations. Finally, on a recent trip to Jaffna, PolOff found that local politicians did not raise accountability for events at the end of the war as an issue of immediate concern, focusing instead on current bread-and-butter issues, such as IDP releases, concerns about Sinhala emigration to traditional Tamil regions, and
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re-developing the local economy.
9. (S) Accountability is clearly an issue of importance for the ultimate political and moral health of Sri Lankan society. There is an obvious split, however, between the Tamil diaspora and Tamils in Sri Lanka on how and when to address the issue. While we understand the former would like to see the issue as an immediate top-priority issue, most Tamils in Sri Lanka appear to think it is both unrealistic and counter-productive to push the issue too aggressively now. While Tamil leaders are very vocal and committed to national reconciliation and creating a political system more equitable to all ethnic communities, they believe themselves vulnerable to political or even physical attack if they raise the issue of accountability publicly, and common Tamils appear focused on more immediate economic and social concerns. A few have suggested to us that while they cannot address the issue, they would like to see the international community push it. Such an approach, however, would seem to play into the super-heated campaign rhetoric of Rajapaksa and his allies that there is an international conspiracy against Sri Lanka and its "war heroes." BUTENIS
WikiLeaks cables: 'Sri Lankan president responsible for massacre of Tamils'
by Julian Borger, diplomatic editor, The Guardian, UK, December 1, 2010
Tamil activists in Britain - where Mahinda Rajapaksa is currently visiting - are seeking an arrest warrant for alleged war crimes
Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Photograph: Keystone/Rex Features
American diplomats believed that the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, bore responsibility for a massacre last year that is the subject of a UN war crimes inquiry, according to a leaked US cable.
Lawyers for Tamil activists in Britain are seeking an arrest warrant against President Rajapaksa for alleged war crimes committed last year at the bloody end of the long-running civil war against Tamil separatists. Rajapaksa, who is in the UK, is due to meet the defence secretary, Liam Fox, tomorrow and had an address to the Oxford Union scheduled for Fridaycancelled due to security concerns.
Thousands of Tamils are thought to have died in a few days in May 2009, when a large concentration of Tamil Tiger guerrillas and civilians, crammed in a small coastal strip, came under heavy bombardment from Sri Lankan government forces.
In a cable sent on 15 January this year, the US ambassador in Colombo, Patricia Butenis, said one of the reasons there was such little progress towards a genuine Sri Lankan inquiry into the killings was that the president and the former army commander, Sarath Fonseka, were largely responsible. "There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power," Butenis noted.
"In Sri Lanka this is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for many alleged crimes rests with the country's senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers and opposition candidate General Fonseka." Fonseka was convicted of corruption by a court martial this year.
In her cable to Washington, Butenis seeks to explain why there is so little momentum towards the formation of a "truth and reconciliation" commission, or any other form of accountability.
Most Tamil Tiger commanders, also under suspicion for war crimes such as the use of civilians as human shields, had been killed at the end of the war.
President Rajapaksa had meanwhile fought an election campaign promising to resist any international efforts to prosecute "war heroes" in the nation's army.
Not only was the Colombo government not interested in investigating itself, but Tamils in Sri Lanka – unlike those abroad – were also nervous about the issue as it might make them targets for reprisals.
Butenis wrote: "While they wanted to keep the issue alive for possible future action, Tamil leaders with whom we spoke in Colombo, Jaffna and elsewhere said now was not time and that pushing hard on the issue would make them 'vulnerable'.
"Accountability is clearly an issue of importance for the ultimate political and moral health of Sri Lankan society," the ambassador concluded, but she did not think it would happen any time soon.
Last month David Cameron endorsed calls for an independent investigation into the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009. The UN has set up a inquiry into the events of last May, but Butenis thinks any overt foreign push for prosecutions would be counter-productive.
"Such an approach, however, would seem to play into the super-heated campaign rhetoric of Rajapaksa and his allies that there is an international conspiracy against Sri Lanka and its 'war heroes'," Butenis argued.
A spokesman for Fox said: "Dr Fox will be meeting President Rajapaksa in a private capacity. This reflects Dr Fox's long standing interest in Sri Lanka and his interest in, and commitment to peace and reconciliation there."