“They didn’t believe that anyone in the international community was willing to stop them, and they were right.” That is the lucid explanation offered by John Holmes, the British diplomat and former chief of the U.N.’s humanitarian operations, as to why, in 2009, the Sri Lankan government was willing to risk international condemnation and accusations of war crimes in its all-out final push to end its 26-year-long war against the Tamil Tigers. Holmes was interviewed by Britain’s Channel 4 for a documentary that aired yesterday called Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished. It is a follow-up to a film aired last June by Channel 4, and this one, too, is full of images of graphic violence and suffering, including what appears to be the body of a 12-year-old boy, the son of former Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran, shot five times in the chest at close range. International-law experts interviewed in the documentary called it “a crime and a war crime.”
That allegation is one of four case studies presented in detail; the others include allegations that the Sri Lankan government knowingly shelled a U.N. field hospital, denied adequate food and medicine to civilians in a so-called no-fire zone and fired heavy weapons into an area full of civilians, whom it then claimed to have “rescued” in a humanitarian operation. The Sri Lankan government has categorically denied all the allegations in the latest Channel 4 report: “Channel 4 chooses to focus its attention on a number of highly spurious and uncorroborated allegations and seeks — entirely falsely — to implicate members of the Sri Lankan government and senior military figures.” The government also criticizes Channel 4 for airing the documentary during the current session of the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC): “The timing of this programme is nothing more than a cynical and concerted attempt to assist in gathering support for a resolution calling for action on Sri Lanka, tabled at the ongoing 19th Session of the Human Rights Council.”
The timing is certainly not coincidental. The UNHRC resolution is only the latest effort to call the Sri Lankan government to account for its conduct during the final phase of the war. The Channel 4 documentary presents some of the most shocking allegations of atrocities, but they are by no means the first. During the last few months of the war, there were numerous reports of civilian casualties and forced detention of civilians. But unlike the conflict in Syria, there were no independent observers in the war zone in the war against the Tamil Tigers — the Sri Lankan government refused to allow journalists or international aid agencies to document what was happening — so the calls for accountability began only after the fighting had ended. In October 2009, U.S. officials interviewed Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President’s brother, who is a U.S. citizen, and former army chief Sarath Fonseka, who is a green-card holder. In 2010, the U.S. State Department’s point man on war crimes, Stephen Rapp, looked into the issue. Last year, the U.S. spent most of its diplomatic energy pushing the Sri Lankan government to launch a credible investigation of its own, through its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).
The LLRC was a disappointment. While it did acknowledge, for the first time, that there were significant civilian casualties, “the report, nonetheless, does not fully address all the allegations of serious human-rights violations that occurred in the final phase of the conflict,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said shortly after it was released in December 2011. The State Department then called on the government of Sri Lanka to show that it was serious about accountability. The new resolution before the UNHRC is a sign that the U.S. has concluded that it is not, and will now take the case against Sri Lanka to the international community.
While this multilateralist foreign policy has proved effective elsewhere — most notably in Libya — it is unlikely to work with Sri Lanka. The U.S. no longer has the clear support of India, an ally and the most crucial partner on any international action involving Sri Lanka. Gotabaya Rajapaksa described exactly how important India was to Sri Lanka’s war effort in a June 2011 speech: “From the time of his election, President Rajapaksa went out of his way to keep New Delhi briefed of all the developments taking place in Sri Lanka. He understood that while other countries could mount pressure on us through diplomatic channels or economic means, only India could influence the military campaign.”
Last year, there were signals from New Delhi that the Indian government might lean on Sri Lanka in response to pressure from political parties in India’s Tamil-speaking south, who have long been sympathetic to the plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. But that political calculus has shifted: India’s Congress Party has grown estranged from those allies, and New Delhi is suddenly much less interested in pushing for change. Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna told Parliament that his main concern was “whether our actions will actually assist in the process of reconciliation in Sri Lanka” by encouraging dialogue between Sri Lanka’s Tamil political parties and the government. This is a spurious argument — the Tamil parties, under the umbrella Tamil National Alliance (TNA), have already lost faith in the government of Sri Lanka as a negotiating partner and have called on the international community to pass the UNHRC resolution: “The TNA states that the failure of the Council to act will enable governments, which in fact demonstrate no commitment to change, to escape their obligations by merely making empty promises of reform.”
Sri Lanka has been pushing hard to “win” the vote at the UNHRC and it seems confident of Indian support. In an interview with NDTV, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister commented, “India is our closes neighbor and friend and is a responsible world power. They will take the right decision at the right time.” Even those in the Indian political establishment, like the retired diplomat and commentator M.K. Bhadrakumar, acknowledge that this small country has deftly outplayed India, the regional superpower.
“New Delhi had estimated that its decisive role in helping Sri Lanka vanquish the Tamil Tigers would enhance its prestige and influence in Colombo. However, the LTTE’s destruction has only led to triumphalism in Colombo. Riding a wave of Sinhalese chauvinism, Colombo overnight turned its back on the assurances held out to New Delhi that once the LTTE was done with, a fair, just and equitable solution to the root problem of Tamil alienation could be found. Plainly put, New Delhi’s capacity today to nudge Colombo in that direction is virtually nil.”
If its resolution at the UNHRC passes, the U.S. will be left with few other options. It could try to prosecute Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a U.S. citizen; it could push for sanctions or ask the U.N. Security Council to refer the case to the International Criminal Court. None of those seem very likely; but in any case, the Sri Lankan government has already made some moves to protect itself. It has moved several top military officials, including two of those named in the Channel 4 report, into senior diplomatic posts, which give them immunity from prosecution.
In a sense, this month’s battle at the UNHRC is the yet another stage in a long endgame to the war against the Tamil Tigers, one that President Mahinda Rajapaksa and others in his government have been strategizing for years. In a July 2009 interview, I asked him about the possibility of action against him for human-rights abuses.
TIME: What if an elected government is acting against its own people?
Rajapaksa: Are you going to punish the whole citizens for that, or the man who is responsible? Anywhere in the world if something goes wrong, they punish the whole country. Take me. Say that I violated all these human-rights violations, killed people, right? Do you punish me, Mahinda Rajapaksa, or the innocent people of this country by sanctions, embargoes, travel advisories? You punish the whole country.
TIME: What is the appropriate punishment, then, for an elected government?
Rajapaksa: You can take him out of U.N. membership. But still give the facilities to the people. Or ban him [from travel by not] giving visas. There are ways of punishing me if you want. There, now by saying that, I will get punished.
Then he laughed.