Report of the Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka/Introduction

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1. The war in Sri Lanka ended tragically, amidst controversy. Many Sri Lankans and others around the world were relieved that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), renowned for its brutality, was defeated and that 27 years of armed conflict had come to an end. However, many people in Sri Lanka and elsewhere were deeply disturbed about the means used to achieve the victory by the country’s armed forces. They had watched for months, with increasing alarm, as hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians became trapped between two highly determined warring factions, unable to flee, as the LTTE was forced into a small corner of the Vanni, on the north-east coast of the country. The toll of civilian casualties, both killed and wounded, rose dramatically. Civilians were caught by shelling from the Government side; when they attempted to escape the area, many, including women and children, were shot by the LTTE. As the need for humanitarian assistance rose, it was increasingly restricted by the Government. Attempts to broker a political settlement – or even a sufficient respite in the fighting to enable the civilians to reach safety – foundered.

2. Due to the scarcity of objective reporting from the conflict zone, it was difficult to determine precisely what happened during the final military assault that culminated in a declaration of victory by the President of Sri Lanka on 19 May 2009. However, it is clear that some 290,000 persons displaced from the battle zone – several times higher than the Government’s earlier estimates of the population there – were interned in closed camps. Approximately 14,000 people were evacuated by sea in the care of the International Committee of the Red Cross, many of them seriously wounded. By all indications, the death toll was extremely high, although even today no figure has been accurately determined. Nevertheless, the Government has consistently contended that it conducted a “humanitarian rescue operation” with a “zero civilian casualties” policy.

3. Only three days after the end of the war, the Secretary-General visited Sri Lanka and saw first-hand some of the areas in the conflict zone as well as a camp for persons displaced from the conflict area. At the conclusion of his visit, the Secretary-General issued a joint statement with the President of Sri Lanka. In it the Secretary-General underlined the importance of an accountability process to address violations of international humanitarian and human rights law committed during the military operations, and the President agreed to take measures to address those grievances. The establishment of the Panel of Experts is in follow-up by the Secretary-General to that joint commitment.

4. The Panel’s mandate is to advise the Secretary-General on the implementation of the joint commitment with respect to the final stages of the war. In this report, the Panel assesses the nature and scope of the alleged violations of international law and the Sri Lankan Government’s response. In particular, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission is assessed in light of international standards and comparative experiences. The Panel also reviews the Sri Lankan legal system and domestic institutions responsible for accountability. Throughout its work, the Panel has taken into account Sri Lanka’s historical and political context as well as the current environment for accountability in Sri Lanka. This report is the result of the Panel’s work and includes advice for the Secretary-General encapsulated in a set of recommendations.