The world welcomes the end of the civil war that has ravaged Sri Lanka for decades. Unfortunately, questions have emerged about how the conflict was brought to a close and whether war crimes were committed in the final bloody days of fighting. The Colombo government has dismissed the allegations as unfounded; the defeat of the Tamil Tigers has overshadowed charges that the guerrillas used civilians as human shields. An investigation is required: If war crimes were committed — no matter which side is responsible — perpetrators must be held accountable. No government or rebel group must believe it is immune from the rule of law.

The Sri Lankan conflict was a long civil war that claimed 80,000 to 100,000 lives. Both sides inflicted indiscriminate damage on civilian populations — the government by resorting to artillery and air power, the rebels by their suicide attacks. The guerrillas even used Tamil compatriots as human shields.

During the last weeks of the conflict, the number of civilian casualties increased as the Tigers retreated to an ever-shrinking area. Rebels claimed civilians joined them out of fear of government forces; the government countered that the refugees had been uprooted at gunpoint. The government said civilian-occupied areas were no-fire zones for heavy artillery; the rebels insisted that pledge was a sham, providing various pieces of evidence to support their allegations. No definitive proof was available as the fighting reached its conclusion; the government kept journalists and human rights groups from the war zone, and Tamil Tiger claims were viewed with suspicion and often dismissed as propaganda.

Since the fighting ended, however, independent observers have been able to examine the war zone and what they have found is disturbing. A strip of beach where thousands of civilians retreated was pockmarked by craters that, in the words of one expert, look to be the work of “a very large” shell.

The civilian casualty list is long and growing. The number of refugees exceeds 265,000; some say it tops 300,000. Equally troubling is the death toll. The government says civilian deaths were unavoidable, adding that the military did not use heavy artillery as alleged while the Tamil Tigers used civilians as shields and in some cases even killed civilians themselves.

Officially, the United Nations has estimated that 7,000 people were killed in the final offensive. Unofficially, however, it has been reported that the death toll for the last month of fighting could exceed 20,000 civilians. The discrepancy has prompted calls for an investigation into whether war crimes were committed. Ms. Navanethem Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, rightly noted that “victims and the survivors have a right to justice and remedies.” As she explained, “establishing the facts is crucial to set the record straight regarding the conduct of all parties in the conflict.” The European Union’s human rights commissioner agrees.

The Sri Lankan government has dismissed any criticism of its actions. Officials say they should be applauded, not censured, for ending one of the world’s most vicious insurgencies. Mr. Palitha Kohona, the minister of foreign affairs, firmly rejected the allegations, arguing that “We would have finished this war months ago if we hadn’t cared about hurting civilians.” The local press was even more succinct: “The time has come to tell the salmon-eating international busybodies to go home.”

The diplomatic response has been more restrained. When European governments brought a motion before the U.N. Human Rights Council, calling for an international investigation into whether war crimes had been committed by either side, the council instead passed a resolution commending the government’s victory and urged it to protect minorities.

Colombo is no doubt aggrieved that its victory has been sullied. It is upset that Western governments, which demanded support in their war against terror while permitting the Tamil diaspora to fund the Tiger rebels, would demand that Sri Lanka be held to account. But the laws of war and the notion of crimes against humanity are premised on the belief that there are limits to how combatants conduct themselves in conflict.

If anything goes, then all conflicts could be ended much quicker. But we insist on standards to restrict the behavior of combatants, and it is only the prospect of their enforcement that gives them force and utility. Laws that are disregarded when they are needed most are worse than useless, because they endanger those who rely on them for protection.

If the government is telling the truth, it should have nothing to fear from an investigation. A complete, unvarnished international assessment of its conduct would vindicate its counterclaim that the Tamil rebels are the real criminals. Stepping forward would also demonstrate the government’s readiness to reach out to its long-aggrieved Tamil community, a vital first step toward true reconciliation and enduring peace in Sri Lanka.

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