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Sri Lanka’s dead and missing: the need for an accounting
Sri Lanka’s dead and missing: the need for an accounting
Sri Lanka: Prevention Should Be at Heart of New Human Rights Council Resolution
Sri Lanka: Prevention Should Be at Heart of New Human Rights Council Resolution
Commentary / Asia

Sri Lanka’s dead and missing: the need for an accounting

Nearly three years since the end of the war, there’s a growing need for an accounting of – and for – those killed and missing in the final months of fighting in northern Sri Lanka in 2009. Members of the UN Human Rights Council, opening its 19th session in Geneva today, should be ready to press the Sri Lankan government for real answers.

Instead of grappling with the many credible sources of information suggesting tens of thousands of civilians were killed between January and May 2009 – including the UN’s real-time data collection, international satellite imagery, and the government’s own population figures – the government is rewriting history on its own terms. In the lead up to the Human Rights Council session, the government released an “Enumeration of Vital Events” for the Northern Province. It finds the total death toll during the five bloody months of fighting in 2009 to be under 7,000 with another 2,500 missing, but it doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants or assign responsibility for any death to either the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or to government forces.

These findings fall far short of the UN Secretary-General’s panel of experts’ estimate that as many as 40,000 civilians died in those last months and even higher estimates based on the government’s own prior census figures. This “enumeration” also runs counter to an important recommendation of the government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) calling on the government to “conduct a professionally designed household survey covering all affected families in all parts of the island to ascertain first-hand the scale and the circumstances of death and injury to civilians, as well as damage to property during the period of the conflict”. The LLRC made this recommendation at the end of November 2011, well after the “enumeration” project was conducted from June to August 2011.

The LLRC’s report has serious shortcomings in its treatment of allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by government forces, but it also acknowledges important realities, including breaking with years of government claims of “zero civilian casualties” and accepting that “considerable civilian casualties had in fact occurred during the final phase of the conflict”. While it then goes to lengths to absolve the government of responsibility for those casualties, its recommendation of a professionally designed survey could help clarify the fate of the dead and missing in the north – if done credibly and independently. Unfortunately, there are no signs of such a credible and independent process emerging.

Just days after the LLRC delivered its report to the president on 20 November, his brother, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, delivered a speech to the “Inaugural National Conference on Reconciliation” in which he said that the government had “conducted a complete census” in the north, which was “in the process of finalisation”. He said a “questionnaire” had been used which included seven categories of dead or missing persons: “those who died of natural causes; those who died of accidents; those who left th[e] country through illegal means, particularly by boat to India or to South East Asia, and from there to the West; those who died whilst fighting as members of the LTTE; those who died as a result of being coerced to fight by the LTTE; those who died as a result of resisting the LTTE … ; [and deaths] that occurred due to military action”.

Without explaining how those categories were determined or what the government had done to avoid bias in its questionnaire and information gathering, the defence secretary concluded that “as a result of the census, we already know that the real number of dead and missing is far too small to provide any substance to the absurd allegations of genocide and war crimes that have been made against our military by the rump LTTE and their cronies”. On 8 February at an event hosted by the Swiss mission to the UN in New York, Sri Lanka’s permanent representative to the UN repeated the claim that the government has carried out “a comprehensive census in the Northern Province which will enable firm and verifiable conclusions to be derived at on issues involving disappearances, deaths, etc”.

The “enumeration” released soon after this statement doesn’t deliver the details promised. Instead it appears to be little more than another attempt to short-circuit what Sri Lanka’s people really need and what the global community – and even the LLRC – have been asking for: an independent, credible assessment of who and how many died and under what circumstances (i.e., who and what caused the deaths or disappearances).

The process by which this supposed count has happened is not at all clear, but the conditions under which any census would have been conducted in the north – an area under effective military occupation by a victorious army accused of the crimes in question – are not conducive to a fair and accurate count. The risk that the government has now politicised the department of census and statistics, as it already has politicised the police, judiciary and human rights commission, should be deeply worrying to Sri Lanka’s international partners.

As member states of the Human Rights Council prepare for the upcoming session, they should ask the government for a full explanation of how this purported census was conducted, what safeguards were in place to ensure independence, who (by name and by civilian or combatant) was killed or went missing and how, and whether UN agencies and independent civil society organisations will be allowed to verify the findings. Equally important, Council members should ask the government to reconcile its “enumeration” with the now-extensive information available suggesting that tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the final stages of the war, most as a result of government fire into heavily populated civilian areas.

The precise number and identities of all civilians killed in those last bloody months will likely never be known, especially if the government persists in its resistance to an independent, international inquiry. Nonetheless, several sources of information regarding civilian casualties need to be addressed – fully and transparently.

Sources of information suggesting civilian deaths in the tens of thousands

The UN’s real-time, on the ground survey of deaths and injuries

There are, first of all, the casualty figures gathered by the UN and humanitarian staff trapped in the fighting, which recorded 7,721 civilians killed and 18,479 injured between August 2008 and 13 May 2009, after which information collection became too difficult. These numbers were not estimates, but actual counts based on eyewitness sightings verified by two additional sources. The vast majority of those included in the UN count were killed between late January and late April 2009, before the escalation in fighting in the final three weeks.

The Secretary-General’s panel of experts noted strong grounds to believe these numbers understate actual casualties during that period. These include the conservative methodology used to collect the figures, suspected underreporting by UN agencies (in response to pressure from the Sri Lankan government), the location of many casualties in areas inaccessible to observers, and the fact that following 13 May, the number of civilian casualties likely increased significantly as many civilians died from their injuries with no functioning hospital or humanitarian facilities in the warzone to register casualties or treat the wounded.

The government, including the LLRC, has frequently dismissed these figures because the UN failed to publish them, without acknowledging that the UN raised them with the government in private discussions. The UN’s failure to speak out about its casualty estimates and the scale of the humanitarian crisis, and the government’s willingness to castigate the UN for even attempting to assess the civilian toll, are both matters of serious continuing concern.

Casualty estimates for the final week of fighting

Multiple eyewitnesses who were in the warzone during the final week estimate that thousands of civilians were killed in those days. Many describe walking past hundreds of bodies as they exited the final “no-fire zone” and seeing entire families buried in collapsed bunkers. A U.S. embassy cable on 18 May 2009, the day the government declared the war over, said a UN contact thought the LTTE’s claims of 25,000 civilians wounded or killed in the last few days were exaggerated, but that based on a 10 May shelter analysis and estimates of 70,000 to 80,000 people in the “no-fire zone” before the final assault, the number unaccounted for could be as high as 7,000 to 17,000. The UN contact also reportedly said the UN doubted the LTTE’s claims on the night of 17 May that it still had 1,000 to 2,000 cadres.

Contemporary population figures from senior government officials

There is also information from the government’s own officials working in the north suggesting that as many as 70,000 or even 140,000 civilians who were surveyed in the warzone just before or during the final months of fighting never made it to the government internment camps at the end of the war.

At least three separate figures need to be compared against the number of civilians in the camps as of late May 2009, which the government reported to be approximately 290,000. First, the former district secretary for Mullaitivu and current district secretary for Jaffna, Imelda Sukumar, testified to the LLRC on 4 November 2010 that there were 360,000 people caught in the fighting in the Puttumatalan “no-fire zone” established in February 2009.

Second, the UN panel of experts reported that her assistant, the former additional government agent (AGA) of Mullaitivu, and his staff who were in the “no-fire zone” counted some 330,000 people still trapped in the fighting in early February 2009. At that time, government figures showed that 35,000 were already in government camps. After the AGA advised officials in Colombo of the 330,000 figure, they wrote to him that the figure was “arbitrary and baseless” and that the government would be “reluctantly compelled” to discipline him for providing “wrong information to any source especially in regard to IDP figures”.

Finally, documents from the local government offices in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts, dated 30 September and 1 October 2008, show a total population of 429,000. These figures were cited in the LLRC testimony of the Catholic Bishop of Mannar, who asked for clarification as to what happened to the more than 140,000 people apparently missing given the much smaller population corralled into government camps.

Corroborating the government’s contemporary population figures

This last estimate of the number of those still unaccounted for may seem high. Indeed, the central government has long argued that local population figures were inflated under pressure from the LTTE, in order to exaggerate the humanitarian crisis and to generate greater quantities of humanitarian supplies, which the LTTE could steal. While some inflation in the figures is possible, it is unlikely to have been large enough to explain all, or even most, of the discrepancies. There is also some corroborating evidence that argues for taking seriously even large estimates of the missing and demanding a full and independent accounting.

For example, if one takes the total population figures for residents of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts from the 30 September and 1 October 2008 local government documents, they match almost exactly the central government’s estimated 2008 population figures for those districts, which can still be found on the department of census and statistics website in its estimated mid-year population by sex and district, 2000-2010.

The combined total of Kilinochchi residents counted by local officials in late 2008 was 146,700 (121,900 then living in Kilinochchi and 24,800 displaced to Mullaitivu), while the central government estimate for Kilinochchi residents was 140,000 in 2006, 143,000 in 2007 and 147,000 in 2008 (and provisionally 154,000 in 2009 and 156,000 in 2010).

Similarly, the combined total for Mullaitivu residents counted by local officials in late 2008 came to 126,350 (100,600 still living in Mullaitivu and 25,745 displaced to Kilinochchi), while the central government figures for Mullaitivu show 129,000 in 2006, 132,000 in 2007 and 135,000 in 2008 (and provisionally 154,000 in 2009 and 148,000 in 2010).

Because local government officials’ figures for Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu residents in late 2008 are almost exactly what the government had officially accepted for years, the government should explain why so many fewer people ended up in government camps in mid-2009. It should also explain why its most recent “enumeration”, which says there are now only 103,717 people in Kilinochchi and only 66,526 people in Mullaitivu – a drop of over 100,000, doesn’t raise many more questions than it answers.

A UN survey in the internment camps

Another intriguing statistic can be found in a UN Survey of 100 randomly selected shelters in zone 3 of Menik Farm in early May 2009 – prior to the worst fighting of the final two weeks. This small survey found that “22 per cent of the families” interviewed “reported that an immediate family member had died”. Extending this percentage to the approximately 90,000 families who ended up in camps after the end of the war, it suggests a minimum of 18,000 killed. Sample bias and other potential problems with this survey – including the possible inclusion of some combatants or deaths in earlier stages of the war – need to be examined, yet given the timeframe (prior to the deadliest weeks) and the possibility of multiple deaths within (or complete destruction of) some families, it could in fact be a generous minimum.

Estimates of war widows and female-headed households

Finally, there are other estimates available – including from the government – that appear to be consistent with large-scale loss of life. For example, multiple sources have claimed that there are now 40,000 “war widows” in the north. In September 2010, the ministry for child development and women’s affairs said it had lists of 40,000 war widows in the north, though it reduced this number without explanation in August 2011, to only 16,936. A separate media report cites government and donor figures of 30,000 out of 110,000 households in the former warzone that are headed by women. And a survey by the Jaffna-based Center for Women and Development reportedly estimated 40,000 female-headed households in the north, half of those in Jaffna. Not all of these women would have lost their husbands in the final months of the war, nor would all those men killed have been civilians – but many would have. And to the number of non-combatant husbands killed, one would have to add the women, children and unmarried men who died in the fighting, as well as those cases where both members of a married couple – and even whole families – were killed.

What the LLRC said about civilian casualties

The LLRC reported that the scale of civilian casualties, especially from January to May 2009, was a key question for the commission. Yet it accepted what the defence ministry told it – that “an estimate of civilian deaths was not available”. At the same time, the ministry had no problem providing an estimate of LTTE deaths – 22,247 for July 2006 to May 2009, with 4,264 confirmed by name for the period January to May 2009; or an estimate of security force deaths – 5,556 for July 2006 to May 2009.

Separately, the LLRC noted that the defence ministry had estimated the total number of LTTE cadres in the north to be 21,500. Given that approximately 11,700 suspected cadres were detained for “rehabilitation” at the end of the fighting, there are serious questions as to (1) how the government reconciles its 21,500 cadre estimate with its total of 34,000 killed or detained; (2) whether the 22,247 LTTE deaths were combatant deaths; and (2) whether the 11,700 detained for “rehabilitation” were in fact combatants. Unfortunately, the LLRC did not acknowledge, let alone answer, any of these questions.

Instead, the defence ministry told the LLRC that “it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between LTTE and civilian casualties”. The LLRC expressed its “regret” at the absence of any official record or post-conflict estimate of civilian casualties while at the same time concluding that “considerable civilian casualties had in fact occurred”, but placed the blame primarily on unexplained “crossfire” and on the LTTE – just as the government and military officials who testified before it did.

The LLRC’s recommendation of a professionally designed island-wide household survey regarding civilian deaths and injuries – if done independently and credibly – could make up in part for its unwillingness to challenge the government’s narrative. Such a survey could also provide all Sri Lankans more clarity regarding how many and whose lives were lost in the war, including thousands of missing soldiers and people killed or disappeared outside of the north through decades of counter insurgency operations.

A sign in front of the Palali Security Forces Headquarters, Jaffna Peninsula. April 2019. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
Commentary / Asia

Sri Lanka: Prevention Should Be at Heart of New Human Rights Council Resolution

The UN Human Rights Council will soon discuss Sri Lanka, where the new government has scotched truth and justice efforts related to the 1983-2009 civil war. The Council should demand accountability for past crimes but stress that Colombo’s present policies may spark further deadly conflict.  

As the UN Human Rights Council begins its first meeting of 2021 in Geneva, high on its crowded agenda will be to decide whether to adopt a new resolution that maintains international oversight over Sri Lanka. The present one, adopted in 2015 but now expiring, won support from the Sri Lankan government of the time, which agreed to address the legacy of the country’s brutal civil war and its conclusion in a wave of atrocities in 2009. But Sri Lanka’s current government, led by the same nationalist politicians and generals who were in office at the war’s end, has rejected the truth and accountability agenda it inherited and is working hard to end the Council’s engagement. With options for truth and justice for wartime atrocities closed for now within Sri Lanka, the Council should adopt a new resolution that underscores the international interest in accountability. At the same time, the accountability agenda, which has dominated international discussions about post-war Sri Lanka over the last decade, must not divert attention from the current government’s authoritarian and ethnically exclusionary policies, which may well be sowing the seeds of future violence. The new resolution should thus also focus on preventing a return to violence and be followed by a sustained international effort to persuade the Sri Lankan government to pull back from its dangerous trajectory.

The Long Quest for Accountability

Beginning in 2012, the combination of the Sri Lankan government’s refusal to investigate well-founded allegations its troops committed numerous atrocities in the final months of its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009 and the growing authoritarianism of then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration led to a series of increasingly critical Human Rights Council resolutions. Commissioned by the Council in 2014, an investigation by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights found “reasonable grounds to believe” that both the Tigers and government security forces committed “gross violations of international human rights law, serious violations of international humanitarian law and international crimes”, possibly amounting to crimes against humanity. To this day, these allegations have never been independently investigated, much less prosecuted by national authorities.

The Sri Lankan state’s blanket deflection of accountability briefly lifted in 2015 with the election of a new government, which promised to investigate and prosecute war-related crimes as part of a package of wide-ranging legal reforms and transitional justice measures that were rooted in UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1, which was adopted in October 2015. The government’s co-sponsorship of that resolution appeared to herald a break with the decades of impunity for political crimes and human rights violations committed by state and pro-state forces. The shift triggered important initiatives in Sri Lanka, including the establishment of offices on missing persons and on reparations for war-related harms. Partly freed from previous political constraints, the police mounted serious investigations, leading to the filing of charges and a number of trials in a series of high-profile cases of corruption, abduction and political murder committed during Rajapaksa’s ten years in office. By the end of 2017, however, the government was too divided and rudderless to make a strong or persuasive push on the transitional justice initiatives it had promised in Geneva or to see prosecutions of Rajapaksa-era crimes through to the end.

The door to domestic accountability and reform has since slammed shut, at least for the time being, with the powerful Rajapaksa dynasty’s return to office – first with the November 2019 election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president, and then with the August 2020 parliamentary victory of a coalition led by his brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is now the country’s prime minister. Running on a strongly Sinhala Buddhist nationalist platform, the Rajapaksas and their party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, promised to defend those military officers they considered war heroes against international accountability efforts and to end the “Geneva process” once and for all.

The UN Human Rights Council sessions running from late February to late March will decide whether the Rajapaksas have their way. At the centre of member states’ deliberations will be a powerful new report from the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which calls for “international action to ensure justice for international crimes” allegedly committed during the 26-year civil war. Noting that Sri Lanka has “largely closed the possibility of genuine progress being made to end impunity through a domestic transitional justice process”, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet asks the Council to establish a dedicated mechanism to collect and preserve evidence “for future accountability processes”. She also urges member states to “investigate and prosecute international crimes committed by all parties … including under accepted principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction”; calls on governments to explore targeted sanctions against those credibly alleged to have committed grave human rights violations; and encourages the UN Security Council to consider a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Although Chinese and Russian opposition would make any such referral a non-starter in New York, many victims’ groups and Tamil activists have welcomed the High Commissioner’s call as both an acknowledgement of the gravity of the crimes committed during the war and a reminder of the lack of domestic redress.

Sri Lanka is an example of how impunity can breed further atrocity.

Sri Lanka is an example of how impunity can breed further atrocity. The humanitarian catastrophe of 2009, during the final months of the civil war, was only the most recent of a long series spanning decades. The absence of justice for tens of thousands killed or “disappeared” in the left-wing Sinhala youth insurgencies and government counter-insurgencies of 1971 and the late 1980s directly fed the impunity with which police and military dealt with the Tamil militancy that began in the late 1970s and ended in 2009 with the Tigers’ destruction. It is hard to imagine breaking the cycle unless the state acknowledges its past crimes, something the present government is clearly unwilling to do. The Human Rights Council cannot change the government’s mind, but it could at least keep the pressure on Colombo by endorsing the High Commissioner’s call for international actors to take additional steps in the service of accountability.  

That said, it is unclear how far the Council will be willing to go. An initial draft resolution from the “core group” of states – Britain, Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro and North Macedonia – has disappointed many activists and survivors’ groups by pulling back from the High Commissioner’s bold calls for ICC referral, targeted sanctions and the creation of an independent evidence-gathering mechanism. With strong opposition expected from China, Russia and other supporters of Sri Lanka, the core group has chosen a relatively cautious approach, fearing the potentially lasting effects of a defeat. Even in this form, observers expect a close and hotly contested vote. Particularly important will be the degree to which Organisation of Islamic Cooperation member states act on concerns about growing discrimination against Muslims, and the level of engagement of the U.S., now back at the Council as an observer.

An old picture of the Rajapaksas found in the guard's room of the Army memorial in Kilinochchi, former LTTE capital. April 2019. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The Return of the Rajapaksas

But important though it is to continue pursuing accountability for past crimes, the bitter truth for survivors is that even under the most hopeful scenarios, efforts to address past abuses are unlikely to bear fruit for years, perhaps decades. Moreover, those efforts, now necessarily taking place from outside Sri Lanka, will do little to reverse the growing risks arising from the country’s rapid slide back toward authoritarian and Sinhala majoritarian rule.

The 2019 and 2020 elections marked more than the return to power of the Rajapaksa dynasty and its Sinhala nationalist policies. The votes confirmed that Sri Lanka is now firmly in the hands of its most nationalist and militarist elements. Their commitment to authoritarian, militarised governance and to the political and cultural supremacy of the Sinhala and Buddhist majority pose a growing threat to Sri Lanka’s battered democratic institutions and to its political stability.

Signs of this trend abound. The 20th Amendment to the constitution, rushed through parliament in October 2020, removed any meaningful limits on presidential power, providing the head of the executive branch with direct and near complete control of the judiciary, police and previously independent oversight bodies. Even before the amendment’s adoption, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first year in office saw the rapid repoliticisation of the judiciary and police. Courts have been pressured to end many of the criminal cases against members and close associates of the president’s family – some of them are now back in senior government positions – and police investigations have been closed or redirected to protect the Rajapaksas and achieve Gotabaya’s political aims. A presidential commission of inquiry charged with investigating alleged cases of “political victimisation” of Rajapaksa associates by the previous government has recommended prosecuting the police officers who investigated political crimes of the 2005-2015 era, while at the same time characterising as innocent victims a range of suspects charged in murder, abduction and fraud cases. The president has also given unprecedented policymaking powers to serving and retired military officers, many of whom UN or other non-governmental investigations have implicated in human rights and humanitarian law violations.

The militarisation of government administration has led to an increase of state surveillance and harassment of civil society activists.

The militarisation of government administration has led to an increase of state surveillance and harassment of civil society activists, particularly in Tamil-majority districts. With no independent sources of protection and impunity reaffirmed for the past murders and assaults of senior journalists, self-censorship and fear run high among media personnel and civil society activists across the island. On 9 January, President Rajapaksa publicly threatened to treat an opposition parliamentarian like he did the Tamil Tigers leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, whom he boasted to have “killed like a dog”.

The government’s Sinhala nationalist rhetoric and discriminatory policies are also leading to a dangerous rise in religious and ethnic tensions. Sensationalist media coverage of police investigations and a separate commission of inquiry into the 2019 Islamic State (ISIS)-inspired Easter bombing has already created a climate of fear and suspicion toward Muslims among the Sinhala majority. The wholesale replacement of the original police investigation team; the apparently arbitrary arrest and detention under the anti-terrorism laws of a prominent Muslim activist lawyer for alleged involvement in the Easter attacks; and the resurrection of allegations against political rivals that police investigators had previously disproved – all represent breakdowns in the rule of law.

The government’s COVID-19 policies have made matters still worse. Despite the recommendations of its own committee of medical experts and the World Health Organization, the government insists on cremating the bodies of all known or suspected victims of the coronavirus. The policy runs directly counter to Islamic religious tenets and has generated widespread fear, anger and humiliation among Muslims. Despite public protests joined by Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, as well as criticism from UN bodies, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and foreign capitals, the government has refused to change course.

Muslim leaders and activists have long feared that the Rajapaksa government, in both its previous and present forms, would seek to provoke a violent reaction to the harassment and humiliation that members of the Muslim minority have experienced over the past decade, first from militant Buddhists and more recently from the state itself. Notwithstanding the 2019 Easter bombings, which were perpetrated by a small fringe of ISIS supporters, Sri Lankan Muslims have been remarkably restrained in the face of nearly a decade of hate speech and vigilante violence. But community leaders express concern about rising anger at the forced cremation policy. Even the smallest local act of violence could provoke a major backlash and give the government a pretext for drawing public attention away from economic woes arising from the country’s debt crisis, now aggravated by losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, long-running tensions between the Sinhala-dominated state and security forces and the Tamil ethnic minority continue to simmer. Although a return to violent militancy or terrorism appears unlikely, particularly in view of the state’s massive military presence in Tamil-majority districts of the north and east, animosity runs deep. Suffering from decades of political marginalisation and inequitable economic development, Tamils in the north east fear a slow but steady erosion of their cultural and demographic status in the region. With the military playing a direct role in district administration, and nationalist Buddhist practices given official state sanction, Tamils, like Muslims, are increasingly worried about further land seizures for military bases or Buddhist shrines and temples. Surveillance is tight and intimidation of political activists by police and military has increased. Small acts of resistance could easily turn violent and offer an excuse for the military to crack down and further entrench its power.

The Need for a Prevention Agenda

Sri Lanka has a long history of insurgencies and terrorist attacks in reaction to the political marginalisation of minorities and the state’s violations of their rights. Against this backdrop, the Human Rights Council should in the present session go beyond the focus on accountability in past resolutions to sound the alarm about the rising risks of future abuses and their potential link to violent conflict, and to put Sri Lankan leaders on notice that the world is watching.

The Human Rights Council should [...] sound the alarm about the rising risks of future abuses and their potential link to violent conflict.

The recent High Commissioner’s report, which confirms warnings made by Crisis Group since late 2019, provides the basis for such a resolution by identifying “clear early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation and a significantly heightened risk of future violations”. The central task facing the Human Rights Council should be to name, and help contain, Sri Lanka’s growing risks of repression and violent conflict. As one Sri Lankan lawyer argued to Crisis Group: “There’s a genuine risk of major repression. … But international scrutiny could still hold it back”.

The initial draft resolution from the core group empowers the High Commissioner’s office to continue its close monitoring and regular reporting to the Council and notes the most important of the warning signs her report highlights. The resolution could strengthen High Commissioner Bachelet’s hand by explicitly encouraging and giving her office the resources to apply the prevention tools the Council endorsed last year in Resolution 45/31 on “preventing human rights violations”. This resolution asked the High Commissioner’s office to strengthen its monitoring of early warning signs and called on it to bring to the Council’s attention any situation where “patterns of human rights violations …  point to a heightened risk of a human rights emergency”. Should the situation in Sri Lanka deteriorate rapidly, the resolution could provide the basis for intersessional briefings from the High Commissioner or emergency engagement by the Council and the High Commissioner’s office.

While an unenforceable Human Rights Council resolution is unlikely by itself to turn Sri Lanka’s trajectory around, it remains an important and immediate step. It would send a clear multilateral message to the Rajapaksas, focus international actors on their harsh and dangerous policies, and galvanise efforts to keep them from either further enflaming ethnic and religious tensions or closing what remains of democratic space. Specific objectives that those with influence in Colombo might pursue within this framework include:

  • ceasing arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and releasing on bail or bringing to trial those detained under this legislation, including Tamils held on war-related allegations and Muslims detained for alleged involvement in the 2019 Easter suicide bombings;
     
  • ensuring a transparent and procedurally fair process for prosecuting those against whom there is credible evidence of involvement in the Easter bombings;
     
  • ceasing all politically motivated punishment of police and politicians who backed investigations into high-profile criminal cases related to the previous Rajapaksa government, including by discontinuing the Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry;        
     
  • ending the policy of forced cremations and all government policies that discriminate against Muslims and evangelical Christians;
     
  • ceasing arbitrary and illegal seizures of land lived on, cultivated or used as religious sites by Tamils, Hindus and Muslims in the north and east (whether by the military or on alleged archaeological or environmental grounds) and establishing lawful and transparent processes, with multi-ethnic participation, for distributing state land and adjudicating land issues in these multi-ethnic regions;
     
  • ending the politically motivated surveillance and harassment of NGOs and community organisations by police and intelligence personnel; and
     
  • preserving the modest devolution of power provided for by the constitution’s 13th Amendment by holding overdue elections for provincial councils in 2021 and allowing them to operate effectively.

Outside actors wishing to press Colombo on these points have sources of leverage. Options that could be explored include the European Union formally reviewing Sri Lanka’s human rights-linked GSP+ trade privileges; international financial institutions and bilateral development agencies tightening the application of their conflict sensitivity and anti-corruption policies; the UN suspending new deployments of Sri Lankan troops as peacekeepers; and member states taking steps to pursue targeted sanctions and apply universal jurisdiction as recommended by the High Commissioner.

But while these should all be considered, right now the big push is in Geneva. If the Human Rights Council enacts a meaningful resolution that keeps accountability on the international agenda and encourages prevention, it may help generate much-needed momentum that states and other institutions can carry forward. This is where a renewed effort to prevent Sri Lanka’s further slide toward repression and increased risks of conflict urgently needs to begin.