COLOMBO — Sri Lanka pressed ahead Tuesday with an international seminar aimed at sharing its experience of defeating “terrorism” despite a boycott campaign and new claims that its troops committed war crimes.
The seminar entitled “Defeating Terrorism, Sri Lankan Experience” is co-sponsored by China, but rights groups called for a boycott and major nations such as the United States and Japan have stayed away.
A massive military offensive crushed the country’s Tamil Tiger separatists two years ago, bringing an end to ethnic violence for the first time in decades but also sparking allegations of war crimes.
On Monday, a UN envoy confirmed that a video allegedly depicting Sri Lankan troops executing Tamil Tiger rebels was authentic and that the actions constituted “definitive war crimes” that should be investigated.
“I believe that the prima facie case of serious international crimes has been made by the video that I’ve examined,” Christof Heyns, UN special rapporteur on executions, told the UN Human Rights Council.
Defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse opened the seminar in Colombo by slamming critics for their “assumptions and misunderstandings” over the offensive.
“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,” he said.
“This is deeply disappointing to the government because one of the most important facets of the Sri Lankan war against terrorism was the immense care with which it was conducted.”
A panel of experts advising UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon concluded last month that there were “credible allegations” of government forces shelling civilians and hospitals and killing surrendering rebels.
Sri Lanka has denied that any civilians were killed and believes it is being unfairly targeted after ending a war that claimed an estimated 100,000 lives amid regular suicide bombings of government targets.
Rajapakse, a retired army colonel who is also the president’s younger brother, said the military had “liberated” territory held by the rebel group and freed “hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians from its cruel grip”.
“We were rescuing an entire nation from the constant threat of hellish horrors of terrorism,” he said.
But David Kilcullen, a leading counter-terrorism expert who was a special adviser to General David Petraeus in Iraq, told the conference that the war crimes allegations should not be swept “under the rug”.
And he told the government that the lives of Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils had to be improved.
“If we want to avoid a repeat of the conflict, that is ultimately what needs to change,” he said.
Sri Lanka called the three-day conference saying that other countries could benefit from studying its success in defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009.
But New York-based Human Rights Watch had urged a boycott of the seminar.
Among the nations not sending delegations are the United States, Britain, Australia, France, Japan and Switzerland, who have all pressed Sri Lanka to investigate the alleged war crimes.
China, the island’s key arms supplier, Russia and India were among about 40 other countries attending.