Sri Lanka seeks new international laws to fight terrorism

Reuters News
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Posted: May 31, 2011 4:18 PM
Sri Lanka seeks new international laws to fight terrorism

By C. Bryson Hull

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka on Tuesday argued that the spread of terrorist groups worldwide requires a revamping of the international laws of war, which put governments at a disadvantage against foes that do not have to follow them.

Sri Lanka's External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris made the observation during the opening of a three-day military seminar hosted by the government to share the lessons of its victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009.

The conference in the capital Colombo began amid a renewed push by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and some Western nations for an international probe into allegations war crimes happened in the quarter-century conflict's last phase.

"The entire body of international law must be revisited," Peiris, a law professor, told the conference. "It was developed during a time of war between state actors. Surely the principles have to be revamped, because it is asymmetrical now."

The LTTE, born in the 1970s era of liberation movements with the stated aim of creating a separate state for Sri Lanka's Tamils, later landed on U.S., British and 30 other nations' terrorism lists due to its prolific use of suicide bombings.

Rights groups have urged a boycott of the seminar called "Defeating Terrorism-Sri Lankan Experience", which Sri Lankan ally and top weapons supplier China is co-sponsoring.

Sri Lanka invited 53 countries, and at least 40 including Russia, Brazil, and other Asian and African nations sent delegates, officials said. Several Western nations declined invitations, although the United States sent a military attache.

On Monday, a U.N. investigator said video showing Sri Lankan soldiers executing prisoners was "prima facie evidence" of war crimes and should be investigated.

That follows the April release of a report to the U.N. Secretary-General which found "credible evidence" both sides committed war crimes, and that tens of thousands of civilians were killed.

Sri Lanka says the report is undermining its own probe. Critics point to Sri Lanka's 40-year history of local probes into rights abuses failing to hold anyone accountable.

'HARD TO SHAKE'

Sri Lanka rejects the allegations as unfounded and biased, and fueled by the global influence of the pro-LTTE diaspora in some countries' electoral politics and its propaganda machinery, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa told the conference.

"Even more sadly, a number of influential figures in the international community formed very strong opinions -- or should I say jumped to very hasty conclusions -- about our conduct of the war," Rajapaksa said.

As the war raged to a close in the first half of 2009, Sri Lanka was livid that then-British Foreign Secretary David Miliband led calls for a truce. A leaked U.S. document later showed one of his motives was securing British Tamil votes.

Rajapaksa said Sri Lanka did not have the resources to manage adverse opinion in nations it did not deem critical to national security at the same level it did with neighboring India and other regional powers.

"Some of these assumptions and misunderstandings have proven hard to shake even to this day," said Rajapaksa, who is the president's younger brother and fought the LTTE as an infantry officer before becoming the civilian architect of their defeat.

Sri Lanka has acknowledged that some civilians were killed, but rejects charges that the casualties were in the thousands and that it intentionally targeted non-combatants. Rajapaksa said commanders were ordered to avoid all civilian deaths.

"The LTTE did its best to make these orders hard to follow," he said. "The LTTE also established their artillery positions at places such as hospitals and within civilian encampments in order to limit the army's ability to retaliate."

Video footage exists of civilians being killed by artillery at several hospitals in the former war zone.

Sri Lanka has said that it did not target hospitals, but its diplomats have argued the LTTE's firing from those areas removed the legal prohibition on attacking them in any case.

(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)