NEW YORK // The UN has defended the creation of a controversial three-person panel to probe rights violations committed during the endgame to Sri Lanka's brutal civil war, which was dismissed by officials in Colombo as "totally unnecessary". This month, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, made a long-awaited decision to appoint experts to advise him on "accountability issues" relating to abuses committed last year during the violent end to almost three decades of conflict.
Sri Lankan nationalists protested the move noisily this week, while government officials in Colombo rejected the UN's "unwarranted and uncalled for" intervention and said they will refuse the experts visas to enter the South Asian island. Speaking with The National yesterday, Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the UN chief, rejected claims that the world body was trespassing on Sri Lankan sovereignty and insisted that Mr Ban was not exceeding his powers by creating the panel.
"The secretary general has all the authority he needs to name a panel of advisers," Mr Haq said. "Whereas commissions of inquiry have normally required a mandate, the panel of experts for Sri Lanka is an advisory panel limited to advise the secretary general. "It is not a fact-finding or investigative body that would determine the facts or scope of the alleged violations in Sri Lanka, and nor is it intended to make visits to Sri Lanka that would require the consent of the government."
The defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in mid-May last year ended a conflict that claimed the lives of 100,000 people since rebels began fighting for an independent homeland in 1983, Rights groups are pressing for accountability for thousands of civilian deaths in the final months of the conflict, when government forces shelled a "no-fire zone" while encircling the rebel's final stronghold on a sandy strip of north-eastern Sri Lanka.
The Tigers were accused of using child soldiers and human shields among myriad violations, but since their defeat by Sri Lankan security forces, allegations have centred on the military's excessive use of force during the final offensive. The UN has repeatedly urged Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to probe abuses but has also been criticised for failing to ratchet up enough pressure against his increasingly gloating and nationalistic government.
The president's own probe - a Commission on Lessons Learned and Reconciliation - was announced in May, but it is widely regarded as lacking legal powers. Even Mr Ban's panel is seen as an attempt to increase political pressure on Mr Rajapaksa rather than uncover evidence of violations. Marzuki Darusman, a former attorney general of Indonesia, will head the panel, supported Yasmin Sooka, who served on South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Steven Ratner, a professor specialising in international law at the University of Michigan Law School. The panel is expected to wrap up its responsibilities within four months.
Members will examine the "modalities, applicable international standards and comparative experience with regard to accountability processes, taking into account the nature and scope of any alleged violations in Sri Lanka", said a UN statement. UN spokesman Mr Haq said this week investigators will focus on the final stages of the conflict, when abuse allegations centre on the government's excessive military force causing the deaths of thousands of Tamil civilians.
"The conflict ran for decades, and during that period many atrocities took place," said Mr Haq. "While there is a legitimate need for a through inquiry into the entire conflict, it was felt that as a first step it would be necessary and practical for the secretary general's panel to focus on the final stages of the war. "During that time, grave violations of humanitarian and human-rights law by both sides are alleged to have taken place despite strident appeals and warnings from the international community for the protection of civilians."