The request to conduct a Peoples’ Tribunal came from the Irish Forum for Peace in Sri Lanka, in a letter dated 19.11.09. The Forum claimed that from the time that the war began in July 2006 through April 2009, according to United Nations internal documents, air raids and the use of heavy weaponry resulted in the death of 116 people per day. British and French mainstream media reported that during the final few weeks 20,000 Tamil people were killed. There were numerous accusations that Sri Lankan security forces were guilty of violating the Geneva Conventions on warfare and of having committed gross war crimes and crimes against humanity, particularly during the last five months of the war, between January and May 2009. The charges included the bombing of civilian habitations, hospitals, and government-proclaimed ‘safety zones’ or ‘no fire zones’ by security forces, causing innumerable deaths of civilians, doctors and aid workers. Additionally, the charges also included depriving the population of essential services such as food, water, and health facilities in war zones, and other grave crimes against humanity.
Even before the war ended, UN agencies had been voicing their concern to the Sri Lankan Government over the level of impunity surrounding human rights abuses, the continued attacks on civilians by its armed forces, and the denial of aid to the local population residing in areas formerly administered by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Nonetheless, Sri Lankan security forces completely ignored these warnings and continued their deadly assault. In the immediate months after the war attention shifted to the plight of over 280,000 Sri Lankan Tamils forced to live in internment camps in the Vanni region. Densely packed in camps, with inadequate infrastructure to provide safe food, water, sanitation and health facilities, the Government announced that the internally displaced people (IDPs) would be kept there until they had been ‘screened’ for possible LTTE sympathies. In subsequent weeks, reports poured in of scores of Tamil youths disappearing from the camps, having been taken away by security forces and government-sponsored paramilitary groups. Hundreds are feared to have died.
Following the international outcry resulting from the forcible detention of Tamil people in these camps for more than 5 months, the Government announced that a significant number of them would be resettled. However, it has been reported in the BBC and other news media that a considerable number of those released were simply moved to new satellite camps in remote areas. The Sri Lankan Government has always vehemently denied all wrongdoing on the part of its forces and has dismissed all accusations as attacks on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. It has steadfastly refused to permit the media and other organisations, both national and international, including UN bodies, to enter and to ascertain the facts by interacting with local people. In the Sri Lankan south, any call to critically examine the conduct of the war and the action of the Sri Lankan security forces in terms of internationally accepted war conventions and human rights standards, is regarded as treason.
Against this background the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal was asked to examine the following:
1) Did widespread or systematic attacks directed against the Tamil civilian population take place in the sense that has been described by the ‘Rome Statute’ of the International Criminal Court as ‘crimes against humanity’?
2) Was there an intentional infliction of conditions of life calculated to bring about the destruction of part of the Tamil population, inter alia the deprivation of access to food and medicine, consistent with the definition of ‘extermination’ elaborated under ‘crimes against humanity’ within the Rome Statute?
3) Have Sri Lankan government forces violated the international law of war by executing war prisoners who surrendered themselves to the Sri Lankan Army? Have Sri Lankan armed forces subjected Tamils that they have captured, or those who have surrendered, to torture? Have there been outrages committed against the personal dignity of prisoners, or humiliating and degrading treatment inflicted upon them?
4) Have sexual assault and rape been used as weapons of war?
5) Have murder and disappearance of Tamil people in contravention of the Rome Statute on ‘Enforced disappearances of persons’ taken place?
6) Has there been mass deportation and detention of Tamil people in contravention of international law?
7) Have Sri Lankan armed forces committed war crimes by indiscriminately using heavy weaponry and air power in densely populated areas? Have they utilized weapons forbidden by international law, such as cluster munitions and weapons of chemical nature?
8) Have Sri Lankan government forces committed war crimes by desecrating the dead?
This Tribunal is dealing with the crimes committed by the Sri Lankan government, but not with the crimes committed by the LTTE forces in the war.
The reason for this is that humanitarian law was created to protect citizens from the State. Any crime committed by individuals or groups can be judged and punished by the State. However, crimes committed by the State usually result in impunity, as the State is not willing to judge and punish its own actions.
The category of human rights violations in international law applies specifically to the State. The action of this Tribunal is a mechanism to ratify this principle.