It has been more than 14 years since the civil war in Sri Lanka came to an end. Although a semblance of peace has returned to the parts of the country devastated by the 29-year conflict, its victims are yet to see justice delivered.
Over the years, the United Nations and human rights organisations have diligently documented war crimes committed during the war. Their focus has been mainly on atrocities carried out by government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But there has been almost no attention paid to international backers of the Sri Lankan government who may have been complicit in the war crimes it committed against civilians.
Israel is one of them. In the 2000s, Sri Lanka became one of Israel’s most important clients in Asia, undertaking significant procurement of Israeli military technology. Israelis also trained Sri Lankan troops involved in the war.
Evidence that I and activists from Israeli human rights organisations Combatant for Peace, Yesh Gvul and Torat Tzedek have gathered reveals that Israeli weapons and military equipment were likely used in atrocities committed in Sri Lanka. We want Israeli complicity in these crimes exposed and prosecuted.
Israeli drones in Sri Lankan skies
In the mid-1970s, Israel bought primitive surveillance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that the United States had used a decade earlier in the Vietnam War and started developing them. In the 1980s, the Israeli army made groundbreaking use of this uncrewed aircraft during the war in Lebanon and later developed offensive prototypes, which were deployed in its assaults on the Gaza Strip.
These UAVs – repeatedly tested on civilians and military targets in the Middle East – have become one of Israel’s most sought-after products around the world. They were also among key military purchases the Sri Lankan government made from Israel in the 1990s and 2000s as the war against LTTE was raging.
In the Sri Lankan army’s own words the Israeli-made UAVs “played a critical role in the war“. Senior Sri Lankan government and security forces officials have repeatedly said in interviews and statements that before attacks, they would watch videos shot by UAVs to verify that no civilians were found in the area, in accordance with their policy of “zero harm to civilians”.
But the UN has uncovered evidence that there was, in fact, severe severe harm done to civilians. According to its estimates, in the last months of the war alone, between 40,000 and 75,000 civilians were killed, most of them due to deliberate fire by government security forces.
A 2015 UN report concluded that given the use of UAVs, “the loss of civilian life and damage to civilian property […] may have been anticipated, known and accepted by Government and military leaders in breach of international humanitarian law”. In other words, Israeli UAVs did not prevent civilian deaths, they facilitated them.
Other Israeli weapons also played a significant role in war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka bought Israeli-made Kfir combat aircraft, Dvora and Shaldag battleships, artillery systems and Gabriel sea-to-sea missiles. The Israeli surveillance UAVs were used to give direction to these heavy weapons, which deliberately bombed civilians and humanitarian sites and helped win the war at a heavy human cost.
One of the most famous incidents in which Kfir planes were used occurred on August 14, 2006. The Sri Lankan Air Force used the aircraft to bomb a girls’ orphanage in the village of Senchcholai, killing some 60 children and injuring dozens.
Other countries also sold weapons and training to the murderous government in Sri Lanka. However, according to Israeli analyst Shlomi Yass, “Israel stands out in regards to the scope of weapons provided, reaching hundreds of millions of USD.”
This has also been confirmed by Donald Perera, Sri Lanka’s former chief of staff who was appointed as an ambassador to Israel after the war.
In an interview with the Israeli Ynet News website, on July 21, 2010, he said: “For years Israel has aided our war on terror through the exchange of information and the sale of military technology and equipment…We have received billions of dollars in aid over the past few years.”
Seeking justice in Israel and Sri Lanka
Despite accumulated evidence and multiple reports from international bodies and human rights organisations on atrocities committed during the war, those directly responsible for them have not been prosecuted, nor have those who assisted them indirectly from Israel and other countries.
The UN failed to protect civilians during the war, which was reflected in its own internal report leaked to the media in 2011. After the war, the UN failed the civilian victims again, never providing them with recourse to justice for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against them.
Western countries, which are normally big on defending human rights rhetorically, have preferred to continue “business as usual” with the Sri Lankan government in pursuit of their narrow economic, military and political interests.
This has sent a signal to dictators and repressive regimes around the world that attacks on civilians can be committed with absolute immunity. This is precisely why neither the Sri Lankan officials accused of war crimes, nor their foreign accomplices should be let off the hook so easily.
In recent years, we – Israeli human rights activists that also work to stop the State of Israel’s apartheid policies, crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Palestinian people – have gathered information about Israeli involvement in the Sri Lankan civil war between February 2002 and May 2009.
There is more than enough evidence to justify opening a criminal investigation into the involvement of Israeli companies, officials and private individuals in the crimes committed, under both international and Israeli penal law. We have decided to submit a demand to Israel’s attorney general to start a criminal investigation against the Israelis involved in the crimes in Sri Lanka and we will do the same in international forums.
The chance of legal action proceeding is slim but we will not give up. Perhaps if the world had taken the crimes in Sri Lanka seriously, we would not have seen crimes being committed by Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Salva Kiir in South Sudan, Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar and Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. We would not have seen Israel continue to commit crimes in Gaza and the West Bank either.
The globalisation of methods and technologies of repression and violence must be met with the globalisation of accountability.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.