World Asia: South & Central First Look

UN urges Sri Lanka to investigate civil war atrocities

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, gave an oral report on the situation in Sri Lanka on Wednesday as the global institution weighs whether to extend the deadline for addressing crimes committed during the civil war.

Sandhya Ekneligoda wears a badge with a portrait of her missing husband journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda as she speaks to the Associated Press at her residence in Homagama, on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Jan. 23, 2017. Activists and relatives say hope is fading fast for the new Sri Lankan government to act against the perpetrators in the killings and disappearances of journalists during the long civil war or the country's previous administration.
Eranga Jayawardena/AP
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Though Sri Lanka’s government has made progress on investigating abuses perpetrated during the country’s decades-long civil war, much remains to be done, the United Nations indicated Wednesday.

Speaking to the UN Human Rights Council, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, reported on the situation in Sri Lanka still dealing with the aftermath of a 26-year civil war that ended in 2009. He and other speakers from UN member states applauded the progress that has been made, particularly by civil society organizations. For its part, the government has returned some military-held land (and plans to return more under the new Right To Information Act), passed legislation to establish an Office of Missing Persons, and started a process of constitutional reform. 

But this progress falls far short of what the world body expected in October 2015 when it passed a resolution calling for Sri Lanka to open an inquiry within 18 months. For Mr. Al Hussein, moving forward demands international involvement to restore trust in the justice system. He indicated that victims are also supportive of this kind of international participation.

“It is important for the country's future to send the signal that impunity is no longer tolerated,” he said, describing foreign judges, lawyers, and investigators as key to the effort to restore the country’s judicial system.

The country’s decades-long civil war pitted government forces, most of whom came from the Sinhalese ethnic majority, against a rebel group, the Tamil Liberation Tigers. The group was founded after the Sri Lankan government declared Sinhala the national language and Buddhism the state religion, a move that offended the Tamil, a Hindu minority with their own language. The Tigers later emerged as an insurgent group.

The fighting formally ended in 2009, though tensions have persisted ever since. Despite international calls for an investigation, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, which defeated the Tigers, refused to cooperate. The current government, headed by Maithripala Sirisena, came to power in January 2015, and the international community was optimistic that the new government would be more willing to prosecute abuses.

But that cooperation hasn’t materialized. Although President Sirisena, a member of the majority Sinhalese community, won the support of the Tamil minority by promising accountability, he has been slow to pursue investigations and reluctant to allow international involvement. Earlier this month, Mr. Sirisena said he would not "allow non-governmental organizations to dictate how to run my government,” or bow to pressure to “prosecute my troops,” Al Jazeera reported.

That’s indicative of a deeper problem, commissioner Al Hussein said Wednesday.

"The consistent failure to effectively investigate, prosecute and punish serious crimes appears to reflect a broader reluctance or fear to take action against members of the security forces," he told the UN council on Wednesday, according to Al Jazeera.

Among the abuses the UN would like to see investigated are the alleged deaths of thousands of civilians in the final days of the civil war. Government troops are accused of deliberately shelling civilians and denying ordinary people access to food and medical care. In all, between 80,000 and 100,000 people are believed to have lost their lives during the war.

“There is clearly a need for unequivocal instructions to all branches of the security forces that any such conduct is unacceptable and that abuses will be punished,” Al Hussein said.

In their remarks after the presentation, Sri Lankan officials pointed out the progress the country has made and indicated a commitment to moving forward.

“Although much has been done, there is much still left to do, including strengthening our institutions and achieving economic progress,” said Harsha De Silva, deputy minister of foreign affairs. 

The UN is expected to vote later this week to give Sri Lanka another two years to address crimes committed during the war.

This report contains material from the Thomson Reuters Foundation.