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Media bytes: India and Sri Lanka war crimes issue

Paper No. 5408                            Dated 24-Feb-2013

By Col R Hariharan

[This is a summary of the comments made by Col Hariharan in TV discussions and to print media on February 20 to 22, 2013.]

On photographs showing Prabhakaran’s son’s death

On the eve of the release of a full length film on Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes, the British daily the Independent carried an article along with two photographs showing Prabhakaran’s son eating a snack before his Sri Lankan captors allegedly shot him dead in cold blood. This serious allegation pertaining to a war India supported. It is about a brutal and heinous act by a state with very friendly to India. So apart from humanitarian concerns, India in its own interest, needs to get the allegations investigated impartially. If proved true it will undoubtedly be considered a war crime committed by Sri Lanka.

 It is important not because the boy was the son of Prabhakaran, but because he was an innocent boy – not a LTTE cadre - who was killed in captivity either during or after the war, like thousands of others who are alleged to have faced the same fate.  It further reinforces allegations beamed earlier by Channel 4 that included custodial killings of LTTE prisoners carried out by Sri Lankan soldiers and strengthens the allegation.   

For the last four years these allegations have been coming up in public domain one after the other. Undoubtedly, it is a part of a global campaign by Tamils and international civil society groups to bring to book the alleged perpetrators of war crimes during the Eelam War in which thousands of civilians died. But there is nothing wrong in it because that in no way lessens the seriousness of the allegations or the magnitude of the crimes. So they cannot be ignored on this count.

The UN after a preliminary examination of the allegations discussed the subject with the Sri Lanka government both on one to one basis as well as in UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). As a result of these efforts Sri Lanka President appointed the Lessons Learnt and Recommendations Commission (LLRC) and assured its recommendations would be implemented. However, the promised implementation of the LLRC recommendations is unsatisfactory and incomplete. So the UNHRC last year passed a U.S. sponsored resolution seeking accountability from Sri Lanka in implementing the recommendations. And India for the first time supported the U.S. move and voted for the resolution. Sri Lanka’s progress on the subject is due for review at the UNHRC meeting in March 2013.

To summarise, during the last three years the UN and international community particularly India and the U.S. had given enough opportunity for Sri Lanka to investigate and take follow up actions on these serious allegations through a transparent process. Sri Lanka has not only not implemented LLRC recommendation but maintains it is purely an internal matter. It is steadfast in saying these false allegations are part of an international conspiracy to denigrate Sri Lanka and downgrade the achievement of Sri Lanka army in defeating the LTTE. Time has come for carrying out an international inquiry under UN auspices to establish the veracity of the allegations.

On Tamil Nadu Chief Minister’s response

The lack of positive response from Sri Lanka to Tamil concerns in the post war period has distressed Tamils everywhere. This turned to anger when increasing number allegations of atrocities against Tamil prisoners and population with telling visuals started surfacing one after the other.

Tamil Nadu political leaders have been expressing their views on these issues reflecting popular sentiments in their political statements. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Ms J Jayalalithaa during and after her AIADMK party’s thumping victory in the state elections had been demanding that India pressurize Sri Lanka by applying trade sanctions and initiate international action to bring to book those Sri Lankans including President Rajapaksa for involvement in heinous crimes including mass killing of Tamils. The governor’s address in Tamil Nadu Assembly specifically reiterated the demand for trade sanction.

The pictures of Prabhakaran’s son Balachandran’s brutal killing in Sri Lankan custody has turned the simmering anger to rage in Tamil Nadu  and triggered a wave of protests. Ms Jayalalithaa has reiterated that New Delhi must tackle this with the seriousness it deserves and wanted India to join hands with the U.S. to initiate action to bring the culprits of Sri Lanka before international criminal court. She has also announced that Tamil Nadu will not be able to host the 20th Asian Athletic Championships (20th AAC) scheduled to be held in July 2013 as “there was no place for Sri Lankan athletes in the State.”

Her actions and requests to New Delhi for specific actions like trade ban which fall in the central domain should not be trivialized because they reflect the feelings of most of the people of the state. Her decision not to host 20th AAC in a way regrettable because athletics has no borders and it promotes goodwill. In spite of this, I welcome her action because it sends a strong message to the people of India and Sri Lanka that Tamil Nadu’s serious concerns on the handling of Tamil concerns by both India and Sri Lanka.

However, I have my reservations on implementing other actions. India enjoys very close relations with Sri Lanka. So far India had brought its concerns to Sri Lanka’s attention at the highest levels on one to one basis. These efforts have been put paid because President Rajapaksa has political reservations about implementing his promises to India on devolution of powers to Tamils. In fact there had been little progress on many other issues relating to Tamils.

So time has come for Indian Prime Minister to publicly announce India’s unhappiness over the way Sri Lanka has conducted itself in the post war period. And specifically it should speed up devolution of powers to Tamils, investigate all allegations of war crimes and human rights violations by cleaning up issues of governance, and implement all the recommendations of the LLRC. Otherwise India will be constrained to take action both at the national and international level. This can include bringing up the issue at the UNHRC and participation in the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting to be hosted by Sri Lanka. This will make it clear to the Sri Lanka government and people as well as people of India including Tamil Nadu, that India is contemplating a series of actions if Sri Lanka ignores its concerns.

After that India’s approach should be to progressively bring pressure on Sri Lanka rather than taking drastic actions like imposing trade sanctions which would harm India and specifically Tamil Nadu more than Sri Lanka. For initiating action in the International Criminal Court, a lot of preliminary action will be required like collection of evidence, establishing identity of victims and witnesses and recording statements, to establish prima facie case on involvement of specific persons. It can take years. This is not practicable as Sri Lanka’s cooperation at certain level is essential. 

So India should join Britain, Canada and the EU in supporting the suggestion of Mrs Navi Pillay for an international inquiry under UN auspices to look into allegations of Sri Lanka war crimes and human rights violations. This will require Sri Lanka’s cooperation for its successful conduct.

It should not be forgotten that Sri Lanka has an elected government which has Tamil members in bureaucracy and parliament. So it is important that India joins international community in addressing Sri Lanka polity to support their moves and that it was not intended at penalizing the people of Sri Lanka. For the same reason, Tamil Nadu should not ban or cause any harm to visiting pilgrims and ordinary people of Sri Lanka; in fact they should briefed of the concerns of Tamil Nadu through appropriate means.

On LTTE also committing such crimes

This is not the issue relating to allegations of war crimes by Sri Lanka. Yes; LTTE had also committed such heinous crimes. But LTTE has been eliminated and Sri Lanka is planning to prosecute LTTE cadres short listed in its custody for perpetrating heinous crimes. Secondly, this is not a zero sum game; it relates to a state violating its own laws on issues of international concern. On the other hand LTTE was a terrorist organization operating outside the norms of an organized state. So there is no comparison between the two entities. 

On Indian action impacting its strategic interests

It is true that China and Sri Lanka enjoy close, multifaceted relations. However, this cannot be the sole consideration for our Sri Lanka foreign policy formulation. On the other hand, India and China also are fairly successful in building a win-win relationship. And Sri Lanka knows it; it also knows that it is in its own interest that India-China relations are smooth and not jeopardized. So even if Sri Lankan politicians talk of playing the China card, there are practical limitations in implementing it due to India’s strategic domination of Sri Lanka.  Probably China also knows this.

(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: