No hopes left: will the UNHRC’s vote bring justice to the war crimes of Sri Lanka?

By Prateek Srivastava
South Asia Analyst

Special report

After 26 years of gruesome civil war, Sri Lanka declared victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009. Following this one of its kind ‘Military Victory,’ the Rajapaksa (brotherly) administration pursued post-war policies that remained hostile towards ethnic and religious minorities and repressed anyone who seeks justice for abuses committed during the country’s long and bloody civil war [1]. After a few (so-called) peaceful years, active tensions and violence started again in 2006, between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government after the peace process, initiated by Norway in 2002, failed. Unlike other cases, Sri Lanka’s war was won with a full military entourage loaded with heavy weaponry from all across the world, where space for any political and peaceful solution remained minimal [2] After about 23 years of fighting, then government (Rajapaksa 2005 – 2015) decided that there is no space for LTTE or even any thought of a Tamil de-facto state. The Final war of Eelam, known as the bloodiest period of the whole war, saw gruesome war crimes. The Sri Lankan army’s “kill all” response to the LTTE and other Tamilians created atrocities that, today, people remember like it was yesterday. While several efforts have been made by the United Nations, several international organisations, and even the Sirisena administration in 2015 to investigate war crimes and bring justice to victims and their kins, not much has been achieved. In 2019, the United Nations started a new mandate to collect evidence of war crimes [3] The new Sri Lankan Government under the rule of the Rajapaksa brothers (2019-present) has gone to serious extents to not let any independent or international investigation happen in the island, or dig old graves (quite literally) in their ‘new’ country.

A 47-member UN Human Rights Council voted and passed a resolution on 23 March 2021, for an independent UN-led investigation of war crimes and other atrocities committed during the war. However, the return of the Rajapaksa brothers in the 2019 elections, hopes of any justice for human rights violations remains abysmal [4] Will the UNHCR vote bring justice to the people whose wounds remain open and hopes, little to nothing? The New administration has established a strict approach to control any investigation against former army personnel and government officials or gathering of any evidence and People don’t trust the United Nations for its past disappointments. So how will this new resolution come to place, it is to be seen.

As I write this article, I am having conversations with several youth activists from Colombo discussing the future of delayed transitional justice in this country. I include the account of 2 youth activists from Sri Lanka who share their stories and experiences.

Shhh; it’s Rajapaksa’s time again

Shelling, Hostage-taking, Forced disappearance, Denial of humanitarian aid, Summary execution, Rape, Internment, Human shields, Use of underaged soldiers, Mass shootings, Suicide bombings loss of about 140,000 lives, Sri Lankan civil war (especially the last years of the war) remained home to gross violations of Human Rights and Crimes against humanity [5].

Abuses by the government remain well documented by the UN [6], the media [7], and domestic and international human rights groups. Well after the war, the government maintained a crackdown on civil societies, threatened and killed journalists, lawyers, or anyone who spoke a word about the unlawful activities of the army during the war. During the after-years of the war, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government abducted thousands of young Tamil men, suspected LTTE supporters, journalists, activists, and others deemed to be political opponents, in white vans, which became a symbol of political terror [8]

David ( name changed) tells me;

“I was a teenager, but I remember clearly about people getting kidnapped in white vans. Even after the war was over, my family told me and my brother to turn our faces away if they see any activity involving the police/army or any official. Our mothers used to scare us by saying “ the white van will come if you don’t sleep on time” but people who were abducted never saw the faces of their families. It was a given deal, we all knew, if you know something, shut your mouth otherwise say goodbye to your family”

These cases came to an end after the 2015 elections when Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated by Maithripala Sirisena. His government joined the 2015 consensus resolution of the UN Human Rights Council, pledging truth and reconciliation, reparations, and a proper justice process for war crimes. During the Sirisena administration, several police investigations into human rights violations made little progress, revealing evidence of official responsibility for killings and enforced disappearances [9]. However, Not much was done following these investigations, except establishing a Missing Persons Office and Reparations. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former Defense Secretary, and brother of the former president won the elections in 2019, bringing back the Rajapaksa family rule in Sri Lanka, again.

David says – “ We believed the so-called promises by Sirisena. Sri Lanka didn’t get a chance to heal, and what he promised was heaven, far away from what Rajapaksa has been doing in the country. 5 years down, Ethuvum-Pillai (Nothing!). Now that Rajapaksa has returned, we are back to the 2010s. He isn’t gonna do shit, he has silenced hundreds and will continue to do so. This is his country, and it was his war, and his victory, and we [citisens of Sri Lanka] are just puppets.”

Since Gotabaya’s election, he has appointed people implicated in war crimes and other serious violations to senior administration positions. He pardoned former Army sergeant Sunil Ratnayake, one of very few security forces members ever held accountable for violations [10] Ratnayake had been convicted in 2015 of the massacre of Tamil civilians, including children, in 2000. A big surprise came, when C.A. Chandraprema, was named the GoSL’s representative to the United Nations in 2020. An accused member of PARA, a government-funded death squad accused of killing several Tamil individuals. In C.A’s book ‘Gota’s War: The Crushing of the Tamil Tigers’ title speaks for itself) he is a superhero-style talk about the role of Gotabaya in ‘crushing’ the LTTE [11] Not surprisingly, The President himself is accused of numerous abuses, including war crimes and other serious violations [12] Much like in such cases (Trump, Modi for example) Gotabaya has pardoned several and promoted them to be the new ‘saviors’ of Sri Lankans. He disavowed Sri Lanka’s obligations to promote truth, justice, and reparations under the Human Rights Council’s landmark 2015 resolution as an attack on the country’s “war heroes.” [13]

 “The Rajapaksa administration will pursue its own justice process to address accusations of serious abuses…achieving accountability . . . through the appointment of a domestic Commission of Inquiry” says The Sri Lankan delegation to Geneva [14]

Rajapaksa’s administration has escalated surveillance and intimidation since his return to power, targeted victims’ families, human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists, or anyone who’s deemed to be critical of the government [15] I spoke to Sandra (name changed) who is a civil society working in the Northern Provence.

 “Authorities are visiting NGO offices, on a regular basis. They ask for everything, financial and admin records, details of every person working in the NGOs – family, address, phone number. I won’t be surprised if they ask – what did you eat for lunch? Did you take a bath today? I am sure they will find something suspicious in that too” – she said.

Human Rights Watch [16] reported that the surveillance of NGOs and Civil societies has especially increased in the Northern regions ( former home to LTTE). Organisations receiving funds or support from foreign entities are kept under the strict radar. Sandra tells me that NGOs and their workers remain under constant fear that their work could be shut down any day or worse, dragged into some legal kerfuffle.

While NGOs and their workers still live in (somewhat) fear, not many have been that lucky. Human Rights Watch and several others reported that since the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa ( November 2019) a large number “are languishing in prisons over false charges and cases.” For example, Nishantha Silva, a police officer in the CID investigating several cases of massacre disappearance killing, and torture of journalists under the former Rajapaksa administration had to flee the country following threats. Later, another CID member Shani Abeysekara was arrested for allegedly fabricating evidence against a police officer considered close to the president. These are merely examples of similar cases that have seen a rise under the current administration. Sri Lankan human rights group called INFORM collected comprehensive data that showcases the government’s crackdown on any form of dissent. These data include cases of beatings, arrest, and even hacking of personal electronic devices. Since the new government has formed, it has rapidly expanded the role of the military in the government and creating “task forces” of various kinds. Several such were part of the government’s COVID-19 response. Over the time of two months, the military forces arrested about 66,000 people, mainly from the northern region of the country for violating ‘restrictions’. In April 2020, the authorities ( led by the military) said that anyone criticising or speaking against the governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic would be subjected to arrests[17] Sandra adds

 “ Any activity by us that they don’t like or any word against you know who said, they will come after you, arrest you may be even your family. So the old times have come back, See something, say nothing!”

UN? They didn’t do anything then and won’t do anything now!

Now in 2021, The UNHRC adopted a resolution on March 23, giving the mandate to collect and preserve information and evidence of the war crimes committed during the war. The resolution, brought by the UK, on behalf of the core over the concerns of the island’s politicised response to COVID-19. Started from the forced cremations rule by the GoSL, this resolution is now leading to a much larger goal – the war crimes and atrocities that were hidden away till now. The resolution also highlighted “accelerating militarisation of civilian government functions”, “the erosion of the independence of the judiciary”, and “increased marginalisation” of Tamil and Muslim minorities. UN high commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that the domestic efforts to ensure justice to victims have failed and despite the commitments made by the former government ( in 2015), genuine truth-seeking or accountability lacks severely. The UN reports have also accused Sri Lankan troops of shelling hospitals and carrying out indiscriminate aerial bombardments, executing surrendering rebels, and causing the disappearance of thousands of minority Tamils [18].

The new resolutions will allow the UN to “to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence, and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings”, it also provides a budget of $2.8 million to hire investigators on the same.

While the United Nations has been appreciated for their work in numerous incidents, that doesn’t remain the case in Sri Lanka. The United Nations’ efforts in post-conflict Sri Lanka have been highly criticised, including questions on its credibility. Before the final stage of the war, GoSL compelled organisations like the UN to leave the war-zone, the same zone that became home to gruesome atrocities. Since the departure of the UN, the GoSL restricted any humanitarian deliveries in various ways and even failed to ensure humanitarian passages for convoys [19] Hundreds and thousands of civilians lost their lives due to lack of assistance. The United Nations failed to act on these issues, subsequently, the numbers of victims of war grew in a seised number (reported the UN) [20].

Watchdogs claim that the UN stopped counting the casualties several days before the mass-killings of civilians. A decade has passed, and there is still no accurate death toll, many claims, due to the absence of a credible investigation, which the UN was ( and should) be in charge of. After the end of the war, UNSG’s highly ‘valued’ visit proposed an accountability process to be put into place in order to address violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

In 2011, a 3 person UN Panel of Experts released a report on Sri Lanka. UNHCR said that it contained “disturbing new information in the report…will shock the conscience of the international community into finally taking serious action. Although much has been discussed and talked about, no such action has been taken from the UN’s side [21]. The Sirisena government in 2015, committed itself to the UN to take actions against the war criminals, however – not much was done.

This resolution is a ‘Huge Blow’ to the Sri Lankan Government including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who served as the country’s wartime defense chief. So if this resolution is successful, the president himself could be in huge trouble. Sri Lanka has strongly rejected the resolution. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunewardena said the resolution lacked authority as the nations that had voted in favor were outnumbered by those that had voted against it or had abstained. “The resolution was brought by countries supported by Western powers that want to dominate the Global South,” he said [22]. Sri Lanka’s UN envoy, CA Chandraprema, called the text “unhelpful and divisive”, as it was not passed unopposed and strongly objected to by its allies, including China and Russia. Experts have suggested that the Sri Lankan government is unlikely to cooperate with any agency of the UN. But what about the people?

There is a huge lack of trust in the UN on the part of people. David says

“Lies, Lies, and lies on top of lies. That has what the UN has served us. They left and watched all Sri Lankans, no matter Tamil, Sinhala, or Muslim, die and get slaughtered from afar, and when the war finished – came and said hurrah! Now let’s do the right thing. They failed in that too. I won’t call it delayed justice, I call it ignorance, negligence! We are not an oil-giving country right, so no one cares about us”

We will wait and see

Resolution 46/1, adopted on March 23, 2021, establishes a powerful new accountability process to collect, analyse, and preserve evidence of international crimes committed in Sri Lanka for use in future prosecutions. Families of abuse victims have struggled for years to learn what happened to their loved ones and to see those responsible held to account. What remains vital in the case of Sri Lanka is how this UN resolution will resolve in action. The return of the Rajapaksa brothers and their strict censorship, and the lack of trust in the United Nations both remain a hurdle to be crossed. What remains crucial is that people have minimum hope of getting any justice for the crimes committed during the war. It is going to be a struggle to establish trust amongst people and at the same time ask the government to corporate. People of Sri Lanka have suffered for years, and have not received any shoulder to cry on. Bachelet’s office is likely to take several months to set up a team, and evidence-gathering will be a long process. However, winning people’s trust is a bigger hurdle to cross, amongst the strict control of the President, Military and their administration People haven’t got a chance to heal from the atrocities and the ‘delayed’ justice has not been any help either. Sandra adds –

“Honestly, I don’t know if people trust the UN anymore, plus there is this administration, which is cracking down on everything they think is not in their favor. Neither has done anything so far. We have cried, begged, lost our lives, where were they? So I am happy that the UN has finally woken up about the atrocities that happened here, but not sure if anything will happen. We Don’t trust the UN and Rajapaksa will not cooperate. We have lost hope. We have drowned our sorrows in our tears and kissed justice goodbye”

Will the UN vote mean anything for Sri Lanka or its people? That remains to be seen.

(Image credit to Eranga Jayawardena via Human Rights Watch)

References:

  1. Walton, O. 2016. ‘Timing and Sequencing of Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Peacebuilding in Sri Lanka’ in the book Building Sustainable Peace: Timing and Sequencing of Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Peacebuilding, Oxford University Press 2016.
  2. Goodhand, J., Klem, B., and Sørbø, G. (2011). Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian Peace Efforts in Sri Lanka, 1997–2009. Report No. 5, Evaluation. London: NORAD, Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. 
  3. UN rights office gets mandate to document Sri Lanka war crimes. (2021). Retrieved 2 April 2021, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/23/un-rights-office-gets-mandate-to-document-sri-lanka-war-crimes
  4. Explainer: What the UNHRC resolution means for Sri Lanka. (2021). Retrieved 2 April 2021, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/25/what-does-un-human-rights-resolution-mean-for-sri-lanka
  5. Goodhand, J., Klem, B., and Sørbø, G. (2011). Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian Peace Efforts in Sri Lanka, 1997–2009. Report No. 5, Evaluation. London: NORAD, Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. 
  6. OHCHR | HRC OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka. (2021). Retrieved 2 April 2021, from https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/OISL.aspx
  7. Documentary; Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. https://www.channel4.com/programmes/sri-lankas-killing-fields
  8. Open Wounds and Mounting Dangers. (2021). Retrieved 1 April 2021, from https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/02/01/open-wounds-and-mounting-dangers/blocking-accountability-grave-abuses-sri-lanka
  9. Team, O. (2021). UNDOC Sri Lanka. Retrieved 2 April 2021, from https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/LTD/G15/220/93/PDF/G1522093.pdf?OpenElement
  10. Sri Lanka: Justice Undone for Massacre Victims. (2021). Retrieved 1 April 2021, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/03/27/sri-lanka-justice-undone-massacre-victims
  11. New Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka Presents Credentials to the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva | UN GENEVA. (2021). Retrieved 2 April 2021, from https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/presentation-of-credentials/2020/11/new-permanent-representative-sri-lanka-presents
  12. (2021). Retrieved 1 April 2021, from https://cja.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Complaint-Wickrematunge-v-Rajapaksa.pdf
  13. Sri Lanka will not tolerate targeting of war heroes: Gotabaya Rajapaksa. (2021). Retrieved 1 April 2021, from https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/sri-lanka-will-not-tolerate-targeting-of-war-heroes-gotabaya-rajapaksa/article31626767.ece
  14. Statement made by Hon. Dinesh Gunawardena, Minister of Foreign Relations at the 43rd Session of the Human Rights Council – Foreign Ministry – Sri Lanka. (2021). Retrieved 2 April 2021, from https://mfa.gov.lk/statement-made-by-minister-of-foreign-relations-at-the-43rd-session-of-the-hrc-eng/
  15. Sri Lanka: Increasing Suppression of Dissent. (2021). Retrieved 1 April 2021, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/08/08/sri-lanka-increasing-suppression-dissent
  16. Open Wounds and Mounting Dangers. (2021). Retrieved 1 April 2021, from https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/02/01/open-wounds-and-mounting-dangers/blocking-accountability-grave-abuses-sri-lanka
  17. Sri Lanka: A Return to Threats, Fear. (2021). Retrieved 2 April 2021, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/01/13/sri-lanka-return-threats-fear
  18. Explainer: What the UNHRC resolution means for Sri Lanka. (2021). Retrieved 2 April 2021, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/25/what-does-un-human-rights-resolution-mean-for-sri-lanka
  19. UN ‘failed Sri Lanka civilians’, says internal probe. (2021). Retrieved 2 April 2021, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-20308610
  20. Walton, O. 2016. ‘Timing and Sequencing of Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Peacebuilding in Sri Lanka’ in the book Building Sustainable Peace: Timing and Sequencing of Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Peacebuilding, Oxford University Press 2016.
  21. Sri Lanka: UN rights chief urges further probes into reports of war crimes. (2021). Retrieved 2 April 2021, from http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=38194#.WSDaFBOGNsP
  22. Explainer: What the UNHRC resolution means for Sri Lanka. (2021). Retrieved 2 April 2021, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/25/what-does-un-human-rights-resolution-mean-for-sri-lanka

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