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Statement on the UN Sri Lanka Investigation Report
Statement on the UN Sri Lanka Investigation Report
Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past
Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past
Statement / Asia

Statement on the UN Sri Lanka Investigation Report

The release on 16 September of the long-awaited report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on its Sri Lanka investigation (OISL) is a dramatic advance that can help the country respond to its painful legacy of war. The report is a compelling examination of the abuses committed by all sides during the lengthy civil conflict and the steps required to pursue justice, accountability and reconciliation as part of democratic recovery. The UN Human Rights Council (HRC), which mandated the report, should demonstrate the same leadership by endorsing and supporting its conclusions and recommendations at the present session.

The report found a “horrific level of violations and abuses” between 2002 and 2011 and presents evidence of violations by government forces, pro-government paramilitaries and the separatist Tamil Tigers (LTTE) “that are among the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole”. These include indiscriminate shelling, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence, recruitment of children and the denial of humanitarian assistance. The report confirms accounts from victims and survivors of systematic war crimes committed during the final, brutal months of the civil war and immediate aftermath.

Particularly notable is the clear finding that the Sri Lankan criminal justice system remains incapable of conducting credible investigations and prosecutions of these sensitive matters. Arguing that “a purely domestic court procedure will have no chance of overcoming widespread and justifiable suspicions fuelled by decades of violations, malpractice and broken promises”, the report calls for establishment of a “hybrid special court, integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators”. This recommendation merits particular endorsement by the Human Rights Council, given that the government’s resistance to international participation in investigations, witness protection or trials invites doubts about its ability to achieve its own stated goals of justice, accountability and reconciliation and undermines the trust of survivors and witnesses whose testimony will be crucial.

The report comes two days after Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera acknowledged to the Council the institutional challenges Sri Lanka faces. His speech was a welcome departure from the aggressively nationalist and authoritarian policies of the former government and highlighted important points of convergence “on the fundamental need to address the disputed legacy of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war”. The foreign minister described the ambitious proposals he laid out – including a truth and reconciliation commission, offices for missing persons and reparations, a “judicial mechanism with a special counsel” and a new constitution – as designed to respect “the right of victims to a fair remedy and … to address the problem of impunity for human rights violations suffered by all communities”. However, missing from his welcome recognition of the magnitude of the challenges was acceptance of the compelling need for outside independent international participation in this crucial judicial process, particularly in investigations, development of prosecutions, and witness protection. Such participation, as the report recommended, would add important guarantees to all concerned.

Combined with implementation of key reforms the government proposes (some of which would receive support and advice from South Africa and the International Committee of the Red Cross), effective judicial prosecution of those most responsible for the most serious crimes committed by all sides in the war would promote the genuine reconciliation necessary for a sustainable peace.

Sri Lanka has seen decades of failed investigations and prosecutions, with fewer than half a dozen successful prosecutions of (low- and mid-level) military personnel for hundreds of serious human rights cases. No senior commander has ever even been charged with a war-related crime, and the military retains significant autonomy from civilian oversight. Witnesses and rights activists in the Tamil areas of the north and east continue to be threatened. Police investigations into a few high-profile cases from the Rajapaksa era reportedly face resistance from military leadership. Legislation parliament approved for a witness- and victim-protection system in February has yet to be implemented and lacks provision for protection units independent of the police and testimony of the many witnesses outside the country.

The government’s announced commitment to discover truth, give victims justice, end impunity and reestablish impartial judicial institutions argues for it to accept substantial international participation at all stages of the truth, reconciliation and accountability processes. Reforms will also be needed to enable Sri Lanka’s legal framework to deal with the kinds of international crimes the report details. Doing so will require carrying through on the government’s promise to criminalise enforced disappearances, as well as establishing command responsibility as a form of criminal liability and incorporating war crimes and crimes against humanity into domestic law.

This agenda needs leadership from President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and other top government officials, with the support of politicians and civil society leaders from all communities: Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim. The case must be made that involvement of foreign judges and investigators is not an infringement on sovereignty, but crucial for helping all communities escape the scourge of impunity. Framed properly, this argument should resonate with the demands to restore rule of law, end politicisation of the police and judiciary and hold powerful politicians accountable for abuses of power that were central to President Sirisena’s election in January and the victory of the broad coalition that won August’s parliamentary elections.

Pursuing cases against former LTTE leaders who worked closely with the Rajapaksa government, such as K. Pathmanathan (“KP”) and V. Muralitharan (“Karuna”), and any other senior LTTE leaders who may be overseas, will be important to address Sinhalese perceptions that accountability is biased against the military. The announcement by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that it will use the OHCHR report to initiate “introspection into our own community’s failures and the unspeakable crimes committed in our name” is a powerful gesture that other political parties and Tamil and Sinhala diaspora groups should reciprocate.

To make the most of the opportunity to begin genuine reconciliation and accountability and prove wrong those who dismissed earlier resolutions as mainly designed to support regime change, Human Rights Council members should seek consensus on a new resolution that:

  • endorses a Sri Lankan government commitment to make the legal reforms needed to effectively prosecute international crimes, including by incorporating war crimes, crimes against humanity and command responsibility into domestic law;
     
  • endorses reforms and confidence-building measures promised in the Sri Lankan foreign minister’s 14 September speech, as well as a commitment to immediately cease all harassment of victims and activists by security forces;
     
  • mandates significant international participation in all stages of the domestic accountability processes as recommended by the OHCHR report: investigation, prosecution, trials and appeals, protection of witness and victims and preservation of evidence;
     
  • establishes a well-resourced and staffed OHCHR office in Colombo to support, in coordination with the UN Special Rapporteur on Truth and Justice, the government’s promised public consultation process and to advise on the implementation of the government’s package of transitional justice mechanisms; and
     
  • mandates formal Council review of the implementation and effectiveness of all domestic truth, reconciliation and accountability mechanisms in September 2016 and 2017, in addition to reporting by the High Commissioner in March 2016 on the government’s initial actions.
     
  • The OHCHR report, the adoption of its major recommendations by the Council and, most importantly, their acceptance by the government and strong follow-through by the president and prime minister can be a path-breaking moment in Sri Lanka’s democratic recovery and its emergence as a more stable and inclusive state.

Brussels

A supporter of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), former secretary to the Ministry of Defence and presidential candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, holds election posters at the party's election office in Biyagama, in the outskirts of the capital Colombo. AFP/ISHARA S. KODIKARA
Commentary / Asia

Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past

Sri Lanka’s powerful Rajapaksa family appears to be making a political comeback, and presidential front runner Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a troubled, violent history with Tamils and Muslims. These groups and others worry Gotobaya’s election will leave them more vulnerable, and threatens fragile democratic progress after decades of war.

As Sri Lankans head to the polls to elect a new president on 16 November, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stands as the widely acknowledged front runner. As defence secretary during his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decade-long presidency ending in 2015, he was a leading figure in a government that many minority Tamils and Muslims, as well as opposition politicians, blame for terrible political violence and repression. During that period, dozens of journalists were killed or forced into exile, prominent Tamil politicians were murdered, and thousands of Sri Lankans were forcibly disappeared; no one has since been held accountable for those crimes. Gotabaya is expected to name his brother prime minister, as Mahinda is constitutionally term-limited from seeking the presidency. The last Rajapaksa administration became increasingly authoritarian over its tenure, and the family’s political reprise would likely to bring more of the same.

Gotabaya’s main challenger is Sajith Premadasa, the standard bearer for the United National Party (UNP), headed by current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Premadasa is currently Cabinet Minister for Housing, Construction and Cultural Affairs. Although Premadasa is more popular with average voters than the aloof prime minister, private polling, the largely pro-Rajapaksa media, and past voting patterns all suggest that Premadasa is the underdog. Although widely seen as having run a strong campaign so far, Premadasa is also competing against smaller party candidates who could take a significant block of the anti-Rajapaksa vote.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is campaigning on promises of security and order.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is campaigning on promises of security and order that appeal to many ethnic majority Sinhalese, especially in the wake of ISIS-inspired bombings last Easter that left more than 250 dead and at least 500 wounded. He announced his candidacy within days of those attacks, seizing the opportunity to position himself as the nation’s protector. Promising to eliminate all forms of terrorism, he has argued (with little evidence) that the government’s arrest of key intelligence operatives based on allegations of abductions and murders weakened security and paved the way for the Easter attacks.

Gotabaya has emphasised his central role as defence secretary in the 2009 military victory over the Tamil Tigers, a militant separatist organisation that fought for a Tamil homeland in the country’s north east for more than 30 years. Promising voters technocratic, military-style governance, led by professionals rather than politicians, Gotabaya also draws on middle class voters’ appreciation of the redevelopment projects he spearheaded as head of the Urban Development Agency and the general impression that he “gets things done”, albeit ruthlessly at times. Gotabaya has pledged that his government will instil “discipline”, and argued forcefully that love of country is more important than individual rights and that security is paramount.

The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists.

The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists. They worry electing Gotabaya, a strong Sinhala nationalist, would deepen already serious divides among the country’s ethnic communities and threaten its recent modest democratic gains. Sri Lanka’s Muslims are among those most fearful of a Gotabaya presidency. They worry about his support for militant Buddhist groups that attacked Muslims with impunity in 2013 and 2014, when Gotabaya was in charge of the police and army. Evidence that politicians from the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP) were involved in anti-Muslim violence in March 2018 and May 2019 has strengthened these fears, as has the backing of prominent nationalist monks promoting anti-Muslim attitudes for Gotabaya’s candidacy.

Posters of presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa next to rubble from burned-out Muslim-owned shops in Minuwangoda, Sri Lanka. CRISISGROUP/Alan Keenan

Gotabaya has always denied any links with militant Buddhists, and along with others in the SLPP has courted Muslim voters. Although some Muslim businessmen back Gotabaya hoping for business-friendly governance, most Muslims are expected to maintain their traditional support for the UNP. Many worry, however, that this will make their community vulnerable to retribution if Gotabaya wins. In a widely circulated video, Gotabaya’s personal lawyer and a prominent Muslim member of the SLPP articulated the bind in which many Muslims find themselves: telling his Muslim audience that Gotabaya is certain to win, he then asked them how they were likely to fare if Muslims were not seen to have supported him. When one audience member chuckles nervously and says they would get a “massive thrashing”, the lawyer laughs along, agrees and says Muslims would be wise to support Gotabaya to avoid increased harassment and even violent retribution. Smaller pro-Rajapaksa Tamil parties in the multi-ethnic north and east have appealed to Tamils to vote for Gotabaya in order to protect themselves against the perceived threat of Muslim extremism and economic power.

Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win.

Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win. Under the Rajapaksas’ watch, thousands of Tamils disappeared in the final years of war – including hundreds who surrendered to the army on the last day of fighting in May 2009 and were never seen again. When asked at a 15 October press conference about their fate and how he would respond to the continued appeals of their families for the truth about what happened to them, Gotabaya denied anyone was unaccounted for after surrendering. When pressed, Gotabaya asserted there was no point in looking to the past and said he was running to be “the president of the future Sri Lanka”. At the same press conference, Gotabaya announced he would not recognise or honour commitments on post-war accountability and reconciliation the current government made to the UN Human Rights Council in 2015.

For Tamils especially, but also Sinhalese and Muslim victims, being asked to forget is both painful and impossible. The current government’s failure to investigate or press the army to provide answers about the disappeared has kept families’ wounds fresh. The Office of Missing Persons, established in 2018 to fulfil a government’s pledge to the UN, is still struggling to become effective. The police and army, whose assistance is necessary to establish the truth, will likely continue to resist the Office’s work under any scenario. Many expect Gotabaya will formally dismantle the Office of Missing Persons should he be elected.

The last five years represent a lost opportunity to help Sri Lanka recover from the war that ended a decade ago. The broad, multi-ethnic and multiparty coalition that came to power in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015 promised to strengthen the rule of law and tackle the culture of impunity engendered by the nation’s long history of political violence. They restored a degree of independence to the police and judiciary, and journalists as well as civil society activists have made the most of their increased freedom. Chances for more lasting reforms, however, and for prosecutions of the many high-profile cases of corruption, murder and disappearances during the Rajapaksa period, were frittered away in partisan battles between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The government’s failure to make decisive changes has left Sri Lanka’s citizens – and its still-fragile institutions – at risk.

A Premadasa win is no guarantee of turning the page on Sri Lanka’s violent past.

A Premadasa win is no guarantee of turning the page on Sri Lanka’s violent past. His election manifesto contains some positive proposals – including the creation of an independent prosecutor – but his career has not suggested a deep commitment to accountability or reconciliation. His popularity derives from his single-minded focus on the many housing developments his ministry has built and the sense that he cares about average and poor Sri Lankans. During the campaign, he has attempted to match Gotabaya with vows to “eradicate terrorism” and impose the death penalty on drug dealers. Despite this posture and widespread disappointment with the UNP-led government among minority voters and democratic activists, many of them see a Premadasa victory as essential to keeping open Sri Lanka’s fragile space for dissent and pluralism. With the backing of the main Tamil and Muslim parties, Premadasa has also challenged Gotabaya on the crimes and abuses committed during the Rajapaksa years, warning voters of the risks a new Rajapaksa government would carry.

Whether Gotabaya or Premadasa wins this next election, building the independent institutions needed to end impunity will be essential to ensuring lasting peace in Sri Lanka. For external supporters of human rights and democratic freedoms in Sri Lanka, their main leverage will be found in Sri Lanka’s need for help from the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral and bilateral agencies with its struggling economy and dangerously high foreign debt. Vulnerable human rights defenders and opposition politicians will also need political support from outside the country as they continue their quest for truth and justice for past atrocities.

This article first appeared in The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute