AT THIS time last May, the Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared total victory over the secessionist Tamil Tigers. Since then, the outside world has received credible accounts of war crimes perpetrated on a large scale by Sri Lankan security forces as well as by the Tigers. Human rights groups are now calling on the United Nations to authorize an international investigation of humanitarian law violations in Sri Lanka. President Obama, who has drawn criticism for soft-pedaling human rights concerns in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere, should insist that Sri Lanka’s government be held accountable for shelling civilians and hospitals and murdering fighters who surrendered on the battlefield.
The case for an international inquiry is not based solely on an abstract ideal of justice. If there is impunity for the horrors inflicted on civilians in Sri Lanka, other states confronting civil wars or secessionist rebellions will assume there is no price to pay for copying the Sri Lankan blueprint. This is a formula for scorched-earth repression, banning the international press, denying all charges of misconduct, and pretending the killers can conduct a disinterested investigation of their killings.
Sri Lanka needs a peaceful way to move beyond its ethnic tensions. While the country’s Tamil minority has legitimate grievances, the tactics of the Tamil Tigers were often brutal. The Sri Lankan government showed a willingness to take draconian steps to defeat the separatists. Beyond serving the cause of justice, an international war crimes inquiry may also promote a reconciliation between the Rajapaksa government and the minority Tamils of that island nation.