An upcoming human rights project in which young lawyers will gather evidence of war crimes in Sri Lanka has been received with interest by Former United Nations spokesman Gordon Weiss.
Speaking at a presentation before the New South Wales Young Lawyers (NSWYL) on Monday night, Weiss conveyed his approval of the establishment of a working group - comprising the NSWYL Human Rights and International Law Committees and the International Commission of Jurists - which will obtain statements from Sri Lankan refugees, both in Australia and abroad, with a view to facilitating prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
"I am very interested to hear about the evidence gathering program that is being undertaken," said Weiss. "It says something about the self-confidence of the current [Sri Lankan] Government that they believe the truth about what happened ... would not eventually emerge. There are a quarter of a million people who survived [the final siege]. They all bore witness to the things that went on. They all saw the shelling, they all saw people dying, they all lost friends, neighbours and family members ... there is no shortage of witnesses out there."
Weiss, who spent three years in Sri Lanka and has now resigned from the UN, recounted his experience of the final stages of the long-running conflict between Sinhalese government forces and Tamil separatists, known as the Tamil Tigers, which has torn Sri Lanka apart.
"In my belief, between 10,000 and 40,000 people were killed in the final phase of the conflict. I don't think that is an extreme number and I actually believe 10,000 to be a conservative figure ... Eventually history will reveal the proportions of what happened inside Sri Lanka," he said.
Weiss accused the Sri Lankan Government of deliberately misleading the UN and the Sri Lankan people throughout the conflict, particularly in regards to the way in which it conducted the war.
"The Government was continuously denying that it was using heavy weapons ... Certainly, to international observers ... it was apparent that heavy weaponry was being used," he said.
Weiss also claimed the Government had lied about the number of civilian casualties, as well as the number of civilians trapped within the conflict zone.
"The president of Sri Lanka was saying there were 50,000 people trapped inside the zone ... eventually 290,000 people emerged ... This is incredibly important because not only was it crucial to understand how many people were in there in order to understand how many didn't make it out, but also the Government, as it played down the figures, was able to ... legitimately deny sufficient quantities of humanitarian aid," he said.
Weiss also claimed that Tamil Tigers were killing their own people in an attempt to ward off attack from Government troops.
"There is a fair bit of evidence to prove that the Tamil Tigers were shooting large numbers of civilians who were trying to escape the [conflict] zone. The civilian population there ... served a very important tactical purpose ... as a [defence] against full-frontal attack by the Government. And for the Government ... they were the single thing standing in the way of the final destruction of the Tamil Tigers," he said.
Although the civil war has ended, Weiss does not see things getting better for Sri Lanka and believes the recent election of the Rajapaksa Government will deepen Sri Lanka's woes.
"I don't think the election of Sarath Fonseka (the unsuccessful presidential challenger) would have been a wonderful thing, but at least it would have broken the back of the untrammeled power Rajapaksa now holds, which bodes so ill for Sri Lanka's near future and is the source of despair for so many ... Sri Lanka is a stumbling democracy. It is stumbling downwards," he said.
More information in regards to the Sri Lankan evidence-gathering project will be released shortly.
- Claire Chaffey