NEW DELHI -- In a damning report, the United Nations has documented widespread human rights violations committed by Sri Lankan security forces and separatist Tamil Tigers during the civil war, which plagued the country for 26 years, and called on its new government to establish a "hybrid special court to try war crimes and crimes against humanity."
“Our investigation has laid bare the horrific level of violations and abuses that occurred in Sri Lanka, including indiscriminate shelling, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, harrowing accounts of torture and sexual violence, recruitment of children and other grave crimes,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the top human rights official at the U.N., said in a statement, which was released along with the report on Wednesday in Geneva.
“This report is being presented in a new political context in Sri Lanka, which offers grounds for hope,” he said. “It is crucial that this historic opportunity for truly fundamental change is not allowed to slip.”
Noting that the "past years have seen a total failure" in addressing human rights abuses, the U.N. Human Rights Council report said that the new government had "struck a very different tone of reconciliation," but it had do more than prosecute a few "emblematic" cases.
Despite intense international pressure, the former government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa resisted taking action on widespread accusations of human rights violations, especially during the decisive 2008-2009 military offensive launched by the Sri Lankan army against the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) separatist group, which is estimated to claimed 40,000 Tamil lives.
While they carried out a three-decade long armed struggle to carve out a homeland for Sri Lanka's persecuted Tamil minority, the LTTE also terrorised the nation with suicide attacks and assassinations. In retaliation to India sending a peace keeping force to Sri Lanka in 1987, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, a suicide bomber linked with the LTTE, assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 at a rally in the town of Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu.
Earlier this week, the new government, led by President Mathripala Sirisena, promised to set up a South Africa-styled truth and reconciliation commission to address the atrocities, but the minority Tamil community has rejected the idea, and continues to demand for an international inquiry.
"The minister tells us to have confidence and trust them. But ... He himself acknowledges that their track record is not good," said Suresh Premachandran from the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front, AFP reported. "That is why we say: have an internationally independent inquiry."
The U.N. report called on the new government "to convince a very skeptical audience - Sri Lanka and international - that it is determine to show results."
Expressing deep skepticism over the Sri Lanka ability to investigate and prosecute this magnitude of human rights violations within its domestic legal framework, the U.N. recommended setting up a hybrid court which would include international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators.
“The levels of mistrust in State authorities and institutions by broad segments of Sri Lankan society should not be underestimated,” said High Commissioner Zeid. "A purely domestic court procedure will have no chance of overcoming widespread and justifiable suspicions fuelled by decades of violations, malpractice and broken promises.”
The U.N. report documented widespread killing of civilians and extra judicial killings of Tamil Tigers cadres by government forces, which could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
It also records long standing patterns of arbitrary arrests, detentions, abductions, rape and other forms of sexual abuse by government security forces. "There are reasonable grounds to believe that acts of torture were committed on a widespread or systematic scale," it said.
The report also noted that "rape and other forms of sexual violence by security forces personnel was widespread against both male and female detainees particularly in the aftermath of the armed conflict."
The U.N. also accused the Tamil Tigers of unlawful killings, which amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as forced recruitment of adults and children.