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Sri Lanka's civil war came to a bloody end in May 2009, with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by Sri Lanka's armed forces on a small strip of land in the island's northeast. The conflict, the product of long-standing tensions between Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils over the latter's rights and place in society, had begun in the mid-1980s and ebbed and flowed for some twenty-five years, leading to seventy to eighty thousand deaths on both sides. Government repression of Tamil aspirations was matched with ruthless LTTE tactics, including suicide bombings of civilian targets; and for many years the LTTE controlled large parts of northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

The war's last phase was characterized by a large intensification of violence from September 2008 through May 2009, as the government deployed an impressive military force against LTTE-controlled areas by land, sea, and air. In the process, its armed forces attacked civilians and hospitals, and denied food and medicines to the population; the LTTE, for its part, refused to let civilians under its control cross to the safety of government-held areas. As a result, thousands of civilians in the north were killed and injured, and hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes and eventually interned in government camps. Nearly the whole LTTE leadership was killed in the process. International organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and foreign media had little access to the conflict zone. The government took credit internationally for its success in defeating a terrorist movement and won a huge majority in the next election.

In such a scenario, is it possible to devise strategies to hold accountable those from both sides who committed abuses against civilians? This Current Development reviews the efforts by international actors to address accountability for the civilian deaths and injuries during the final stages of the conflict. It examines the reactions of the United Nations to the war; the work of the secretary-general's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka; and the follow-up to that report culminating in the passage of a resolution on Sri Lanka in the Human Rights Council in March 2012. My goal is to highlight the key issues of international law that have arisen and the approach taken by the UN system. The Sri Lanka case shows that, despite an impressive set of legal norms in place to deal with atrocities such as those committed in this conflict, the infusion of politics and the limitations of unprepared institutions can seriously delay prospects for accountability.


Reproduced with permission