Deminers unearth a RBK-500 AO-2.5RT cluster bomb near Chalai. Photograph: The Guardian/Together Against Genocide
Leaked photos appear to confirm the use of cluster bombs by the Sri Lankan government during the height of a large scale military offensive seven years ago, which saw the death of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians.
Photographs obtained by the Guardian show demining teams excavating cluster munitions from Kilinochchi and Chalai in Mullaitivu, sites of heavy bombardment by Sri Lankan forces during the armed conflict.
Leaked by a former employee of the Halo Trust to non-governmental organisation Together Against Genocide, the munitions in the photographs were identified by a senior weapons researcher at Human Rights Watch as “Russian-made cluster bombs and unexploded cluster submunitions”.
A cluster bomb discovered in Chundikulam.
Photograph: The Guardian/Together Against Genocide
The release of the images comes amidst renewed testimony from former officials in de-mining organisations, who report unearthing cluster weapons which may have been used during the bloody final weeks of the government offensive inside the infamous ‘No Fire Zones’.
Though the Halo Trust did not comment on the photographs, it confirmed to the Guardian that it had recovered a total of 42 cluster munitions in several sites around the Tamil North-East during de-mining work in 2011 and 2012.
A failure to disclose?
Despite the cluster munitions having been unearthed several years ago, former officials in two de-mining organisations stated that the findings were never publically released and will raise fresh questions as to why the discoveries of the bombs were kept hidden.
A former Mines Advisory Group (MAG) employee, who did not want to be identified due to fears for his safety, stated that MAG did not publicly release this information “because of their security concerns”.
Another employee with the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) said that the weapons were discovered as far back as 2010, from within the first ‘No Fire Zone’ by Suthanthirapuram.
A “technical adviser confirmed [that they had found cluster bombs] ... but it did not publicise this,” he said.
Any further moves to publicise the findings were halted due to “fear of retribution”, reports the Guardian.
The source of the leaked photographs also told the Guardian that fear of retribution by the Sri Lankan government led to reports being hidden away, a charge that Halo vehemently denies.
The British High Commissioner speaking with Halo officials in May 2015, as a deminer works in the background. Photograph: Halo Trust
A spokesperson from Halo said it “strongly refutes any suggestion that any information of this nature would be withheld from the requisite authorities by its senior management.”
“We take our reporting responsibilities extremely seriously. I can confirm that every item of ordnance found by Halo in Sri Lanka – and indeed in all the countries in which we operate – is itemised in our monthly reports, which are submitted to national authorities.”
Though both the other organisations were approached by the Guardian for comment, MAG did not immediately respond, while FSD declined to issue a statement.
Inside the ‘No Fire Zone’
The former MAG official told the Guardian that cluster bombs had been found in a “densely civilian-populated area” in one of the ‘No Fire Zones’ near Puthukudiyiruppu.
His testimony adds to the large number of witness accounts that confirm the Sri Lankan government used cluster bombs during the final phase of its large-scale military offensive.
Witnesses who testified before the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) also reported cluster the use of cluster bombs, referred to by some as “Koththu Kundu”, on civilian populations, including hospitals.
Patients killed following a reported cluster bomb attack in Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital, February 2009 Photograph: TamilNet.
A Tamil mother grieves after the death of her 5 year old son followwing a cluster bomb attack in November 2008. Photograph: TamilNet
During the height of the bombardment, then spokesperson for the UN Gordon Weiss stated that cluster munitions had been used to attack one of the last functioning hospitals in the war zone, killing dozens of patients.
Previously the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice released a series of witness stories from the final war zone, which included testimony of a cluster bomb attack.
“The main bomb explodes in the air and splits into many pieces,” the witness said. “One kind of cluster bomb, used in Iranaipalai, produced colorful ribbons. Children were attracted and picked pieces up; as they handled the pieces they exploded.”
One witness told the Guardian that “the cluster bomb would explode high up and small explosions would hit trees and people.”
“There would be a smell that would turn your stomach.”
A body of evidence
The aftermath of a cluster bomb attack at the Holy Cross Convent in December 2008. Photograph: TamilNet
The latest findings add to the piling amount of evidence which points to the Sri Lankan government’s systematic use of cluster munitions against the Tamil civilian population throughout the final offensive.
Following an attack on an IDP camp in November 2008, two civilians were killed and 19 others injured.
Children and the elderly were among the victims of the attack, which reportedly saw 16 cluster bombs dropped on the camp.
Just weeks later the Holy Cross Convent in Paranthan was hit by cluster weapons.
In those incidents too, Russian made cluster bombs were reported to have been deployed by Sri Lankan forces. In later attacks, the Russian language markings had been painted over on the munitions before they had been fired.
A parachute used to drop cluster bomblets following an attack on a convent in Deceomber 2008. Photograph: TamilNet
In 2012, following the death of a young Tamil boy who tried to prise apart explosive device for scrap metal to sell, the technical adviser for the U.N. Development Program's mine action group in Sri Lanka, officially recognised the use of cluster munitions by Sri Lanka.
In an email obtained by AP, technical expert Allan Poston states,
“After reviewing additional photographs from the investigation teams, I have determined that there are cluster sub-munitions in the area where the children were collecting scrap metal and in the house where the accident occurred.”
“This is the first time that there has been confirmed unexploded sub-munitions found in Sri Lanka."
A history of denial
Despite this growing body of evidence, the Sri Lankan government though has been staunch in its denial of ever procuring or using cluster munitions.
As early as 2006 though, the Indian Express newspaper reported that Sri Lankan had placed orders from Pakistan for a large amount of heavy weaponry – including cluster bombs.
Yet, Sri Lankan military and government officials have repeatedly denied cluster bomb use.
Sri Lanka’s then Foreign Secretary Palita Kohona, and currently their top representative at the UN in New York, told CNN in 2009,
“I can say categorically that the Army does not use cluster bombs, it does not posses cluster bombs and it does not procure cluster bombs. I say this with authority, because I have… since… hearing the story, I have verified the facts with the procurement committee.”
Also in February 2009, Amnesty International accused the Sri Lankan Army of using cluster bombs, which led to Member of Parliament and Adviser to the President on reconciliation, Rajiva Wijesinha labelling them “lunatics” and their accusations as “rank idiocy”.
The crime of genocide
The systematic nature of such attacks led to repeated accusations that the Sri Lankan government was deliberately targeting Tamil civilians.
In a statement released during the height of the massacres in 2009, the Tamil National Alliance said,
“The use by the Sri Lankan State of internationally banned weapons, such as cluster bombs and chemical weapons, has been a characteristic feature of the current phase of the war being waged against the Tamil people.”
“The Tamil people in the island of Sri Lanka are clearly being subjected to Genocide.”
TNA leader R. Sampanthan pictured leading a protest by 19 TNA MPs outside the UN building in Colombo on Novembe 2006
Several years later, the Northern Provincial Council reiterated once more that “government military forces engaged in deliberate aerial, artillery, and naval bombardment of civilian areas and also used prohibited weapons and ammunitions, such as cluster bombs” in a 2015 resolution, calling on the UN to investigate the charge of genocide by the Sri Lankan government and recommend appropriate measures for the International Criminal Court.
The need for accountability
The latest findings will serve to strengthen the calls for accountability for mass atrocities committed during the armed conflict and come at a time when cluster bomb use in other conflict zones has been highlighted internationally.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the global body had received "troubling reports" of cluster bomb use in Yemen and warned,
"The use of cluster munitions in populated areas may amount to a war crime due to their indiscriminate nature".
Responding to the latest evidence, Sam Zarifi, regional director of Asia and Oceania for the International Commission of Jurists told the Guardian,
“These most recent allegations highlight the need for a credible, effective accountability mechanism.”
Hard questions for Sri Lanka’s government
One of the figures who will need to face calls for accountability will be Sri Lanka’s current president Maithripala Sirisena. Mr Sirisena was acting defence minister during the closing stages of the armed conflict, which reportedly saw much of the cluster bombardment. His colleague and leading cabinet member Sarath Fonseka, the former head of Sri Lanka’s army who was recently promoted by the government, will also face serious questions regarding the military’s actions.
The 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council is currently underway in Geneva. Photograph:@UNGeneva
Speaking as the UN Human Rights Council session gets underway in Geneva, head of Together Against Genocide, Jan Jananayagam, said,
“Seven years have passed and the government of Sri Lanka is still in denial about the types of weapons deployed on Tamil civilians.”
Sri Lanka is on the agenda at the council, where the UN Human Rights chief is due to present a report on its implementation of a UN resolution that the Sri Lankan government co-sponsored last year, mandating international involvement in an accountability mechanism.
And it is international involvement that will be crucial in obtaining justice for the use of such weaponry against a civilian population said Ms Jananayagam.
“The denial of the use of cluster munitions and the destruction of forensic evidence over the past seven years illustrates exactly why it is critical that international investigators and forensic experts be included in any future war crimes prosecution mechanism.”