A U.N. panel has called for a thorough investigation into what it calls credible allegations that war crimes were committed by both sides in Sri Lanka as its decades-old civil war drew to a close nearly two years ago.
A copy of the three-member panel's report was printed Saturday in The Island newspaper. The report called the conduct of the war a "grave assault" on international law and said there were allegations that the government and Tamil Tiger rebels committed serious violations, including some that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
"The government says it pursued a 'humanitarian rescue operation' with a policy of 'zero civilian casualties.' In stark contrast, the panel found credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations were committed" by both sides, the report said.
The panel said tens of thousands died in just the last five months of the war, which ended in May 2009. Most of the civilians were killed in government shelling, it said.
The panel also faulted U.N. bodies and international officials for failing to take steps that could have protected lives and not publicly releasing casualty figures to raise awareness of the abuses.
The panel gathered evidence for 10 months and submitted its report to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this past week. The U.N. spokesman's office said it was "deeply regrettable" that the report had been leaked before its official release later this week.
The panel recommended that the Sri Lankan government initiate an inquiry into the allegations in its report. It also said the U.N. secretary-general should set up an international body to monitor the government's probe as well as conduct its own investigation.
The government, which received a copy of the report, issued a statement calling it "fundamentally flawed and patently biased." It said it would respond to the allegations in more detail soon.
The U.N. panel said it found credible allegations that government shelling caused a large number of civilian deaths in the Wanni region of northern Sri Lanka.
"The government shelled on a large scale in three consecutive no-fire zones, where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate. It shelled the United Nations hub, food distribution lines and near the International Committee of the Red Cross ships that were coming to pick up the wounded and their relatives from the beaches," the report said.
It said the government also "systematically shelled" hospitals on the front lines and all hospitals were hit by artillery and mortar shells, even though the government knew their locations. People in the conflict zone were "systematically deprived" of humanitarian aid, the panel said.
Among the allegations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the panel said the insurgents refused civilians permission to leave areas under their control, "using them as hostages, at times even using their presence as a strategic human buffer between themselves and the advancing Sri Lanka army."
The Tigers also conscripted civilians of all ages, including children as young as 14 years old, and forced civilians to perform labor, blurring the distinction between civilians and combatants. The rebels also shot civilians trying to escape the conflict zone and fired artillery from near the civilians, provoking retaliatory fire, the report said.
The report added that during the civil war's final stages, U.N. agencies "failed to take actions that might have protected civilians."
"Although senior international officials advocated in public and in private with the government that it protect civilians and stop the shelling of hospitals and United Nations or ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross), in the panel's view, the public use of casualty figures would have strengthened the call for the protection of civilians."
U.N. documents at the time said that at least 7,000 civilians had been killed in the last five months of fighting, but the world body did not publicize its figures.
The panel recommended that Ban conduct a comprehensive review of U.N. actions during the conflict regarding the implementation of humanitarian and protection mandates. It also asked the U.N. Human Rights Council to reconsider a resolution that was defeated just days after the end of the war that called for an investigation of abuse allegations.
Amid intense international pressure to investigate abuses, Sri Lanka appointed a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission last year, but the U.N. panel said the body does not meet international standards and is compromised by the conflict of interest of several members.
Sri Lanka did not allow the U.N. panel to visit the country to investigate the allegations it received.
The government's denials of the accusations are likely to continue, resulting in a standoff, said Jehan Perera, head of the National Peace Council, an independent Sri Lankan group that promotes peace and democracy.
He said the U.N. panel "has made a statement to the world and Sri Lanka that wars need to be fought within certain limits," but that the world body "should not push harder" at the government because it would lead to further ethnic polarization instead of reconciliation.
According to the U.N., between 80,000 and 100,000 people were killed in the civil war, in which the rebels sought to create an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils. Human rights groups say the number could be much higher.