Group urges independent Sri Lanka war crimes probe

September 7, 2011 - 5:00 AM

GENEVA (AP) — A leading human rights group on Wednesday urged the United Nations to launch an independent investigation of alleged atrocities committed in the final stages of Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war, saying the country's own probe into the matter was flawed.

Suspicions of war crimes by government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels have risen since the conflict ended in May 2009.

In a 69-page report, Amnesty International concludes that Sri Lanka's government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission wasn't likely to deliver justice for victims and their relatives.

"Its mandate is seriously flawed and in practice it falls far short of international standards on national commissions of inquiry," the report found.

Amnesty claimed the commission failed to use witness testimony to identify alleged perpetrators, didn't protect witnesses who spoke before it, and made no recommendations for bringing individuals to justice.

The report was released days before the U.N. Human Rights Council is expected to take up the issue of Sri Lanka during a three-week meeting in Geneva starting Monday.

Sri Lanka's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva dismissed the Amnesty report, accusing the group of "bad faith" for refusing an invitation to speak last year before the commission, which is still engaged in its probe.

"It is evident that the real aim of those questioning the legitimacy of (the) LLRC is to undermine the principle of state sovereignty," the ambassador, Tamara Kunanayakam, wrote in an email. "Pre-judgment of the commission's outcome is unacceptable and unwarranted, and is to be considered as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state."

Sri Lanka's government acknowledged for the first time last month that civilian casualties occurred in the final phase of the conflict, calling the deaths unavoidable.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in April that he would welcome a mandate from the Human Rights Council, Security Council or General Assembly to launch an international probe into allegations of possible war crimes, after a U.N. panel concluded earlier this year that tens of thousands of people were killed in the last months of the war.

The panel found Sri Lankan troops had allegedly shelled civilians in no-fire zone and targeted hospitals in their push to finish off the Tigers. The rebels, meanwhile, were accused of holding civilians as human shields, using child soldiers and killing people who tried to leave areas under their control.

Separately, a U.N. expert reviewed video footage obtained by Britain's Channel 4 apparently showing soldiers shooting bound, blindfolded prisoners and abusing corpses.

Christof Heyns, the U.N.'s independent investigator on extrajudicial killings, concluded in May that the video was authentic and provided enough evidence to open a war crimes case.

"All U.N. member states should fulfill their shared responsibility to investigate and prosecute persons suspected of responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka by exercising universal jurisdiction," the Amnesty report said. Under "universal jurisdiction" countries can decide to prosecute serious crimes even if they haven't happened on their territory.

Sri Lanka has been trying to rally its traditional supporters, such as China, India and Cuba, to prevent any action against it at the United Nations.