As the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) opens its 30th session in Geneva this week, 62 leading human rights activists have signed an open letter calling on the world body to ensure justice, truth and peace in Sri Lanka, where the unhealed wounds of three decades of war continue to plague the country’s 20 million people.
Among the letter’s signatories are John Cavanagh, director of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies; Medea Benjamin, cofounder of CODEPINK; Norita Cortiñas, cofounder of Argentina’s Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Disappeared); and Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute.
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Six years after the island nation declared an end to its longstanding civil conflict, the statement calls on the UNHRC, and the international community more broadly, not to “fail” the victims of Sri Lanka’s war and to “fulfill its duty by establishing an international independent judicial process under UN auspices.”
Sri Lanka’s human rights record has been front and center in Geneva since May 2009, when the government of then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an armed group that fought for years to carve out a separate state for the minority Tamil community in the north and east of the country.
While his military victories won him massive popular support at home among the majority Sinhala population, the final armed operations in the north (conducted amid a near-total media blackout and virtual humanitarian blockade) earned Rajapaksa a gaping black mark abroad.
The United Nations and powerful Western governments like the United States and the United Kingdom pushed strongly for an international probe into alleged war crimes committed by both the armed forces and the LTTE during the war’s last, bloody weeks, where upwards of 40,000 people – mostly civilians – are estimated to have been killed.
A flurry of investigations and official inquiries followed the war’s end, including a March 2011 report by a panel of experts appointed by the UN secretary general, a November 2012 internal review of the UN’s actions in Sri Lanka and a resolution adopted at the 25th session of the Human Rights Council on the matter of national reconciliation and accountability.
The refusal of the Rajapaksa regime to cooperate fully with any of these efforts to thoroughly investigate the final stages of the war, or to lift the shroud of secrecy covering its own domestic probe, known as the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission, prompted the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2014 to set up a completely independent body to evaluate possible war crimes.
The findings of the Office of the High Commissioner’s Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) were due in March, but the surprise victory of Rajapaksa’s former health minister Maithripala Sirisena in a snap presidential election held this past January, which saw the ouster of the longtime strongman, put a spoke in the wheels.
On February 16, just weeks after Sirisena assumed office, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein announced a “one-time only” deferral of his office’s report until September 2015, “to allow space for the new Government to show its willingness to cooperate on human rights issues.”
In the months following the deferral, the new government has mounted a strong case for a “credible, domestic” mechanism to resolve possible war crimes and prosecute the litany of rights abuses that has reportedly marked the postwar years.
But as the UNHRC reveals the long-awaited and closely guarded findings of the OISL report this week, dozens of organizations and advocates are calling on the UN’s apex human rights body not to leave reconciliation solely in government hands.
New Government, Old Rights Abuses
With a new parliament in power as of August 17, and historic changes already underway – including the appointment of a Tamil opposition leader for the first time since 1977 – hopes are running high that national reconciliation after nearly 30 years of war is close at hand.
But as the activists’ letter points out, justice for the survivors of war remains at best minimal, and at worst, illusory – with the new government even perpetuating some of the same rights abuses as its predecessor.
Noting the Sirisena administration’s “commendable progress confronting corruption and instituting democratic reforms,” the September 14 open letter nevertheless highlights such issues as the continuing military occupation of the former war zone – and the army’s involvement in business enterprises, farming, tourism and property development – as a major hurdle to true reconciliation.
News reports citing statistics from Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Resettlement suggest that while close to 800,000 people displaced by the conflict have since been allowed to return to their homes, an estimated 50,000 people are still living in camps or with host families, since the army is occupying their ancestral lands.
The letter also cites a 2015 UN report that warns of the impacts of militarization in the north and east, such as “an increase in abduction, arbitrary detention, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence.” Experts say the roughly 40,000 to 50,000 war widows living in the former conflict zone are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Meanwhile, an August 2015 report by the UK-based charity Freedom from Torture revealed that torture continues to be a major concern six years after the war’s end, with the army, police and intelligence services (including the Criminal Investigation Department and Terrorism Investigation Department) operating within a culture of impunity.
Based on doctors’ forensic reports of 148 torture survivors, the report found evidence of interrogation methods such as beatings, burnings, asphyxiation, suspension and solitary confinement. About 94 percent of the 148 torture survivors were Tamil.
Sri Lanka also has the second-highest number of disappeared people in the world after Iraq, according to the letter, but while tens of thousands of families believe their loved ones to be in government custody – having surrendered to or been captured or arrested by the armed forces since 2009 – official records indicate only 273 political prisoners as of 2015.
A May 2015 study by the Oakland Institute, based on field research in war-affected areas, puts the number of missing persons at anywhere from 70,000 to 140,000.
Unveiled on September 16, the 257-page UN report – compiled by a core team of seven investigators, with input from three judicial experts – “laid bare the horrific level of violations and abuses that occurred in Sri Lanka, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, harrowing accounts of torture and sexual violence, recruitment of children and other grave crimes,” Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in Geneva.
Given these grim realities, Oakland Institute founder Anuradha Mittal told Truthout that leaving justice in the hands of the Sri Lankan government would be akin to the formulation of a “victor’s court.”
“The OISL inquiry was set up amidst high expectations from victims and survivors that it would facilitate reconciliation. To back off now and hand over the process to the Sri Lankan government, which does not have the confidence of the Tamil people, is to basically mock all prior efforts at truth and justice,” she said.
She added that the dozens of eminent citizens who have signed the letter – including former UN officials, diplomats and activists from Nicaragua, Paraguay, Mexico and Bolivia, among others – have no agenda beyond ensuring that systematic massacres of the kind that marked the final days of the war never happen again.
Stressing the US role in the UNHRC and specifically with regards to its softer stance on Sri Lanka’s rights record after the regime change earlier this year, she cautioned against allowing geostrategic and geopolitical interests to guide the hand of international law.
“The US was very concerned about the closeness of Sri Lanka’s past regime with China. Now, the change of face at the helm without a change in policies is allowing countries like the US to follow their interests, which are really about maritime routes,” Mittal told Truthout, adding that states must not prioritize their business interests over a commitment to the human rights of the displaced, the disappeared or the destitute.
For its part, the Sri Lankan government has made many encouraging promises that suggest a willingness to facilitate genuine national reconciliation.
In his remarks to the UNHRC on September 14, Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera pledged to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance “without delay,” invite a series of special rapporteurs to undertake visits to Sri Lanka in 2015 and beyond, and “review and repeal” the highly controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act.
But as the open letter points out, these promises may not ring true for many victims in light of ongoing rights abuses and the government’s weak track record of implementing effective commissions of inquiry on mass violations.
In an April 2015 report on Sri Lanka, Pablo de Greiff, the UN special rapporteur on truth and reconciliation noted that “failed, inadequate or uneven implementation of recommendations has been a common feature” of commissions of inquiry, which have resulted in “increased mistrust in the Government’s determination to genuinely redress those violations.”
Indeed, on September 16, The New York Times quoted Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein as conceding that circumstances in Sri Lanka would “require more than a domestic mechanism,” while the report itself advises the creation of a special, hybrid court comprised of local and international judges, prosecutors and lawyers – a recommendation that the present government is likely to resist.
Between calls from activists for an international and independent probe, and assurances from the government that it can manage its own affairs, millions of Tamils in Sri Lanka are stuck in limbo, waiting for news of their missing sons, or biding time until they can return to their own homes and start a new life after the ravages of war.