The much-awaited report of Sri Lanka's Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, tabled in Parliament recently, has established a key fact — that there were “considerable” civilian casualties in the final stages of the military operation that ended in the total defeat of the LTTE. This is a step forward from the Sri Lankan government's earlier insistence that there were “zero civilian casualties.” The LLRC has avoided the more difficult task of fixing blame for these casualties wherever it seems the military might have been at fault, citing a lack of evidence. But this handicap has not prevented it from blaming the LTTE for most such incidents. The LTTE's methods of using Tamil civilians as human shields, firing on soldiers from inside hospitals, and its other atrocities designed to put civilians at risk are well known. Fighting such a ruthless terrorist group posed a complex challenge for Sri Lanka. But for the same reason the LLRC critiques the 2002 ceasefire agreement as flawed — treating the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE as equal powers — the report sadly misses the point that the state is held to far higher standards of accountability than a non-state group. Exonerating the military from deliberate attacks on civilians in the No Fire Zone, the report claims the military's return of fire into the NFZs was in keeping with the “principles of proportionality” — in other words, such action was unavoidable given the objective of defeating the LTTE.
Still the LLRC report has come up with the recommendation that the government “ascertain more fully the circumstances” of five incidents in which civilians were killed, and if wrongful conduct by security personnel is established, prosecute and punish the guilty. Based on testimony from affected families, it has also asked the government to investigate the disappearance of several LTTE members who surrendered to the military. Expressing “doubts” about the authenticity of the footage in the Channel Four documentary, Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, it has nonetheless asked the government to address the allegations in it of horrific rights violations by Sri Lankan military personnel, to “establish the truth or otherwise” of these allegations. It has recommended that, despite the confusion over civilian casualties, the government pay out compensation to the affected people as a “humanitarian gesture.” Given the ethnic polarisation in Sri Lanka, these recommendations seem painfully insufficient. Even so, this is Sri Lanka's first attempt at introspection about the war. If the government is serious about reconciliation and learning lessons from the past, it must make a start by acting on the LLRC's recommendations.