Some 300,000 civilians were caught up in the final days of the military campaign to end the Tamil Tiger insurgency in Sri Lanka last year. Women, children, and elderly Tamils were shelled, used as human shields, denied access to aid, and shuttled into overcrowded camps. And though much of this has been known for months, on May 19, the International Crisis Group went further in perhaps the most thorough investigation yet. In an explosive report, the organization charged that the "Sri Lankan security forces committed war crimes with top government and military leaders potentially responsible."
The specific charges leveled in the report include the intentional shelling of civilians, hospitals, and humanitarian operations. These actions, the report says, were "made substantially worse by the government's obstruction of food and medical treatment for the civilian population." The report also accuses the Tamil Tigers, known formally as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), of intentionally killing civilians, though the lion's share of the casualties were government-inflicted. Finally, the report raises the concern that other countries will pursue the "Sri Lankan Option" -- "unrestrained military action, refusal to negotiate, disregard for humanitarian issues -- as a way to deal with insurgencies and other violent groups."
The report came out just ahead of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris's visit to the United States, where he is meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. congressional leaders, thinks tanks, and finally Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday. In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy's Elizabeth Dickinson, he said the Crisis Group's allegations were "nebulous" and politically motivated and dismissed concerns about the arrest of former presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka. Excerpts:
Foreign Policy: What is the purpose of your trip, and how have your goals been received so far?
G. L. Peiris: A whole new situation has arisen with the defeat of terrorism. Sri Lanka is a country with immense potential. Our per capita income in the late 1940s and early 1950s was the highest in that part of the world -- way ahead of Korea, Thailand, and Malaysia. Then we had this problem [of the Tamil Tiger insurgency], which set us back. Now, all of that has been consigned to the past; that's the difference. My visit here is basically to bring [this] to the media's attention.
FP: The International Crisis Group recently released a report documenting allegations that both the Tamil Tiger insurgency and the government were involved in actions that constituted war crimes. What is your response to that report -- and the allegation of war crimes in particular?
GLP: If you look at the report, the allegations are not attributed to any identifiable source, so verification is therefore not just difficult but impossible. There is a kind of veil of secrecy shrouding the sources [in a way] that is destructive of any kind of transparency or verifiability.
Secondly, the report is couched in vague, nebulous language. One sentence in it says that tens of thousands of civilians were killed. What does that mean? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand would be tens of thousands. Ninety thousand also would be tens of thousands.