Pressure grows on UN for investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka

Global body accused of hiding the number of civilian casualties during the civil war in Sri Lanka.

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NEW YORK // Pressure is mounting on the United Nations to launch an investigation into war crimes the government and rebel troops are alleged to have committed during the brutal endgame to Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, briefed Security Council members behind closed doors on Friday, telling journalists outside of the need for an "impartial and objective" investigation into wrongdoing by the Sri Lankan military and the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Activists now say the UN must go further and launch its own investigation into war crimes because neither the Sri Lankan government nor the world body's Geneva-based Human Rights Council willing or able to shoulder the responsibility. "I think we need to have some very clear signal from the secretary general that we cannot simply put this behind us, thinking we can gain stability by closing the book on what happened," said Steve Crawshaw, a UN expert for Human Rights Watch.

"I hope Mr Ban will make explicit his backing for the creation of a commission of inquiry, and that the Security Council will wake up in a way that it has failed to wake up during the last three months." The rebel Tamil Tigers are accused of using civilians as human shields, recruiting child soldiers and other crimes during a bitter war that came to an end last month after a government operation. National forces are said to have killed as many as 20,000 civilians during the final onslaught while indiscriminately shelling a no-fire zone as they encircled the LTTE's final stronghold on a sandy strip of north-eastern Sri Lanka.

At the time, John Holmes, the UN's humanitarian chief, described a "bloodbath on the beaches" with mass civilian casualties. The actual number of deaths is fiercely contested and it remains unclear whether alleged atrocities will be investigated. The UN has since proved reluctant to investigate the human tragedy and even stands accused of being complicit with the Sri Lankan government in obscuring the actual number of civilians killed.

At the end of last month, the UN's 47-member Human Rights Council was criticised for not launching an investigation into rights abuses in Sri Lanka despite repeated pleas from the body's commissioner, Navi Pillay. The Security Council has likewise been deadlocked on the issue, with roughly half the 15-nation membership arguing for Sri Lanka's sovereign right to quash an insurgency within its own borders.

Members have only met "informally" at the UN, last month announcing "grave concern" over civilian deaths while also recognising the "legitimate right of the government of Sri Lanka to combat terrorism". Sir John Sawers, Britain's ambassador to the UN, said pressuring other council members to shift their positions would be difficult and unlikely to yield "any real difference on the ground" in Sri Lanka.

After briefing the council on Friday, Mr Ban told reporters that he called on "the Sri Lankan government to recognise the international call for accountability and full transparency" and suggested a "proper investigation". Sri Lanka's ambassador to the UN, Hewa MGS Palihakkara, said he would "follow up" on Mr Ban's request, although the country's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has openly rejected calls for a war-crimes investigation.

Rights watchdogs are not convinced that Sri Lankan officials will ever investigate the allegations fairly, with Mr Crawshaw, of the New York-based lobby group, calling on Mr Ban and the Security Council to step in. "The government saying it will investigate doesn't solve the problem, because the government has stated in advance that it has committed no crimes and they are only interested in investigating the crimes of the Tamil Tigers," he said.

"We can't have any more of everyone looking away, which is what the world seems depressingly eager to do at the moment." Amnesty International has likewise called for an "international, independent inquiry" established under the auspices of the Security Council or Mr Ban's own mandate. "According to testimonies, the LTTE was responsible for using civilians as human shields, but there is evidence that most civilians were killed as a result of shelling," the advocacy group said.

"The Sri Lankan military continued to use heavy weapons despite promising on Feb 24 and again on April 27 that it would stop using them. The firing of artillery into an area with a high concentration of civilians violates international humanitarian law." Farhan Haq, a spokesman for Mr Ban, ruled out launching a UN Secretariat inquiry for the time being, saying the secretary general will monitor first whether the Sri Lankan government's own investigation is sufficient.

Mr Ban "hopes that the Sri Lankan government will follow up to implement the promises that they have made. If they haven't, he will review and act accordingly", the spokesman said.