|If Sri Lanka’s military and political leaders are found guilty of war crimes during a civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels, they will be subject to travel bans and asset freezes [EPA]|
The United Nations, which is embroiled in a dispute with Sri Lanka over a controversial report detailing war crimes charges against the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has rejected an appeal to keep the findings under wraps.
“It remains our intention to publish the report in full and without amendments,” UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters Thursday. Haq said the office of Ban Ki-moon is continuing its discussions with the Sri Lanka government which has asked the secretary-general to desist from releasing the report because it could cause “irreparable damage to the reconciliation efforts” with minority Tamils in the country.
“We are giving the government a fair opportunity for the right of response. But this opportunity is not indefinite,” Haq warned.
At the time of going to press, he also said the release of the report has been delayed because: “We are still trying to ascertain whether they are willing to avail themselves of this offer.”
The report, running over 190 pages, was released last week – but only to the Sri Lanka government “as a matter of courtesy” and for its right of response.
But since then, the conclusions of the report have been leaked to a local daily in Colombo. The government has denied it was the source of the leak.
Haq said: “We have not leaked the report, nor have we put out bits and pieces of the report.”
“We are working in good faith. And we are giving a reasonable right of response to a member state,” he added.
Asked when the report would be released, Haq would only say: “It is our intention to release it as soon as is possible, and we still would like to publish it simultaneously with a response by the Sri Lankan government.”
Responding to criticism of the panel, Haq said the secretary-general is confident the panel has done a “good job” and not overstepped its mandate.
The report makes several recommendations, including the appointment of an international commission to probe war crimes charges against military leaders of both warring parties involved in the conflict.
But since most of the military leaders of the LTTE were killed in the fighting, any proposed commission will have to target some of the political leaders of the LTTE living mostly outside Sri Lanka – who either orchestrated the separatist movement or helped fund it.
According to one UN source, the secretary-general will also formally submit the report to all member states, specifically the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council – namely the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia.
Any sanctions for war crimes, if proven, include a travel ban on military leaders and a freezing of assets.
But these sanctions will have to be decided by the Security Council – as it has been with leaders in Sudan and the Taliban in Afghanistan accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The secretary-general per se has no authority to impose sanctions or penalise those accused or found guilty of war crimes.
At a press conference in Colombo on Friday, Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs Gamini Lakshman Peiris dismissed the UN report as “preposterous”.
“The consequences of publishing this report are far from favourable to the UN,” he said, pointing out that it will inflict “grave damage to the UN system”.
The three-member panel which authored the report comprised: Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia (chair), Yasmin Sooka of South Africa, and Steven Ratner of the United States.
The panel, which began its work last September, was created by Ban to advise him on “accountability issues” with respect to the concluding stages of a bloody, three-decades-old conflict, which ended in May 2009.
The government successfully battled a ruthless terrorist organisation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was fighting for a separate nation state in the north and the east of the country.
The charges against the government are that its military is responsible for “war crimes” for allegedly executing civilians who were surrendering, or bombing civilian targets such as hospitals and schools.
The panel also investigated charges against the LTTE – mostly for executing civilians – which suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the military.
A version of this article first appeared on the Inter Press Service news agency.