UN flags warning signs in Sri Lanka as it debates civil war impunity

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, right, speaks with former president and current opposition leader Mahinda Rajapakse after the presentation of the 2019 budget to the parliament by Sri Lankan Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, in Colombo (Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)

Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war came to a violent end a decade ago, but the conflict’s unresolved aftermath continues to reverberate through political upheaval and unchecked attacks on minority groups, warns a UN report to be discussed in Geneva today.

 

Sri Lanka has made “virtually no progress” on probing allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to the report, which is to be tabled at the Human Rights Council in the latest examination of the government’s stalled reconciliation promises.

 

The 1983-2009 conflict largely pitted the military and political leadership, dominated by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, against insurgent fighters from the mostly Hindu Tamil minority. But rights monitors and analysts say years of impunity for civil war-era abuses are also widening cracks elsewhere in Sri Lankan society.

 

“The risk of new violations increases when impunity for serious crimes continues unchecked,” the UN report warns.

 

Last March, mobs of Buddhist demonstrators attacked mosques and Muslim-owned houses and businesses in the central city of Kandy, fuelled by hate speech and rumours that had spread over Facebook and other social media. The government declared a state of emergency and temporarily shut down social media networks. The violence left two dead and hundreds of homes damaged, but no one has been convicted for their roles in the riots, despite dozens of initial arrests.

“The lack of accountability for past actions likely contributed to the return of violence against minorities.”

Alan Keenan, a Sri Lanka analyst with the International Crisis Group, calls Buddhist-Muslim tensions “a second fault line” that threatens to explode. Today’s report before the Human Rights Council calls last year’s violence a “very dangerous pattern” moulded by the failure to prosecute past abuses.

 

“The lack of accountability for past actions likely contributed to the return of violence against minorities,” the report warns.

 

Stalled promises

 

The civil war ended in 2009 when the military crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers. Previous UN investigations found evidence of “gross violations” of international rights laws on all sides of the conflict, including thousands of civilian deaths in the military onslaught that ended the rebellion.

 

In 2015, Sri Lanka’s current government pledged to accelerate reconciliation efforts and probe war-time abuses, but rights groups say promised reforms have been slow or non-existent. For example, a government body tasked with investigating the disappearances of tens of thousands of missing people didn’t begin its work until last year, while plans for a national truth commission or to provide reparations for war-time abuses have also stalled.

 

Rights groups draw a direct line between post-war impunity to continuing abuses and political crises that hamper the country today. For weeks last year, Sri Lanka was mired in political deadlock after President Maithripala Sirisena appointed former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, who oversaw the violent military offensive that ended the war in 2009, to the position of prime minister.

 

After weeks of protest, the impasse was only quelled after the country’s Supreme Court reversed Sirisena’s decision to dissolve parliament, Rajapaksa resigned, and the current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, returned to office.

 

Finding the missing

 

Sri Lanka’s missing persons may be the most visceral example of the country’s lingering post-war trauma. It’s also one of the only instances of progress when it comes to the government’s reconciliation efforts.

 

Rights groups say tens of thousands of Sri Lankans are missing since the 1980s. The government created the Office on Missing Persons in 2016, but it didn’t appoint commissioners or finance its budget until last year. The office’s role includes tracing missing relatives, investigating disappearances, and making recommendations on reforms and reparations to the government.

 

But the office itself says it faces “distrust and scepticism” among the families it’s trying to help, fuelled by the “failure of successive state institutions to provide families with truth, justice and reparations”.

 

Finding answers for families with missing relatives, the office said in its first report last year, “is taking place in a polarised context where even the need to address the issue of the missing and the disappeared is questioned by segments of society.”

 

Transitional justice

 

Four years after Sri Lanka’s promised reforms, the UN says the fledgling Office on Missing Persons is effectively the “only functioning transitional justice mechanism” in the country.

 

The government has passed legislation to set up an office for reparations, but rights groups say it will be hampered by excessive government oversight and funding restrictions, leaving the body prone to political interference. A promised truth-finding commission has also seen years of delays.

 

There has been even less progress on one of the most important – and contentious – measures: holding people accused of war crimes to account. Successive Sri Lankan governments have resisted pressure for an international or hybrid court to investigate alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

 

But there has also been little appetite to investigate such crimes in the country’s domestic courts. Instead, the UN report cites “worrying instances of political interference in the judicial or investigative process”, which raises questions about the justice system’s ability or willingness to investigate complex cases.

 

Alleged crimes committed by Tamil Tiger fighters have also gone unaddressed. The rebel group is accused of civilian massacres, using suicide bombers, and recruiting child soldiers, but, like the broader reconciliation promises, Amnesty International says the government has also made “no progress” to address these abuses.

 

“We have nothing to atone for”

 

When President Sirisena was elected in 2015, he was seen as a reformist who promised to accelerate reconciliation between his country’s divided communities.

"The voices that try to talk about the possibility of a united Sri Lanka... are weak minority voices in all communities.”

But analysts say most reconciliation issues are intensely political, with nationalist Sinhalese forces, chief among them the would-be prime minister Rajapaksa, linking reparations and prosecutions to Sinhalese nationalist identity.

 

“The sense among many Sinhalese among the military and among a lot of the political leadership is: ‘We beat the terrorists. Perhaps a few people suffered in the process, but we have nothing to atone for,’” said the Crisis Group’s Keenan.

 

Even seemingly simple measures like vacating military-occupied land in former conflict areas, or releasing political prisoners, has been “grudging and slow”.

 

Keenan says what’s missing is a government committed to changing long-held nationalist beliefs in both Sinhalese and Tamil communities.

 

“The voices that try to talk about the possibility of a united Sri Lanka where all communities are equal and respected, where minority rights are enshrined in the constitution – those are weak minority voices in all communities,” he said.

(TOP PHOTO: Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, right, speaks with former president and current opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa after the presentation of the 2019 budget to the parliament by Sri Lankan Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, in Colombo on 5 March 2019. CREDIT: Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)

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