Will Sri Lanka bring civil war criminals to justice?

UN Human Rights Council recommends an international tribunal, but President Sirisena, new to office, may be hesitant to comply.

Martial Trezzini/ Keystone via AP
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein of Jordan speaks during a press conference in Geneva on Wednesday. The Council has released a report urging Sri Lanka to agree to an international tribunal to investigate crimes against humanity during the nation's 26-year civil war.

The UN is calling for the creation of an international tribunal to finally bring former officials and rebels to justice for the rampant torture, forced disappearances, and civilian deaths during Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war.

The UN released the report on Wednesday after years of stalling from the former government under Mahinda Rajapaksa, who defeated the Tamil Liberation Tigers (LTTE) in 2009, although tensions have continued to flare since.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, expressed hope that the January election of new President Maithripala Sirisena would offer “ground for hope.”

The report’s strongest recommendation is the creation of an international court, composed of both Sri Lankan and foreign experts, to investigate crimes against humanity that occurred during the war, including the recruitment of child soldiers, indiscriminate killing, and widespread, systemic sexual violence.

Some of the atrocities were brought to light in a 2013 Channel 4 documentary that covered the government’s bombing of hospitals and officially declared “no-fire zones,” which The New York Times reports may have killed 40,000. In total, up to 100,000 Sri Lankans are thought to have died during the war, which pitted separatist Tamil forces against the majority-Sinhalese government.

History, however, and Mr. Sirisena’s immediate reaction to the report, left Sri Lankans dubious of the potential for change and healing.

Just days before, Sirisena’s administration announced plans for its own war crimes commission, and seemed open to cooperation with the UN. But the president rejected the High Commissioner’s claims that the country was not in a position to carry out such a large-scale investigation.

As Senior Sri Lankan minister Rajitha Senaratne explained to the BBC, “We need an internationally accepted local inquiry. We are not ready to agree with the international inquiries.” 

Despite Sri Lanka's apparent reluctance to allow foreign prosecutors, BBC analyst Charles Haviland noted one sign of progress: Mr. Senaratne has said that ex-president Rajapaksa might be brought to court.

The UN report stresses that Sri Lanka must not only try individual criminals, but also create deep-seated change in its legal system, which does not currently criminalize many of the abuses in question nor provide for witness to be protected. 

In nearby Myanmar, which is transitioning to democracy after years under the thumb of a military junta, observers have noted a shocking absence of trials, or even individual acts of revenge, toward former generals and politicians. But ethnic tensions have exploded, with militant Buddhists urging violence against the Muslim Rohingya minority, who have been restricted to poorly-resourced camps and attempting to flee Myanmar by the thousands

Earlier this summer, The Christian Science Monitor penned an editorial urging troubled Myanmar to look to Sri Lanka for guidance on reconciliation. The advice may prove premature, if Sirisena’s government does not open the tribunal to international cooperation.

Opening the UN Human Rights Council’s 30th session this Monday, Mr. Zeid admonished 

Unless we change dramatically in how we think and behave as international actors – Member States, inter-governmental organizations and non-governmental organizations alike – all of us in the human rights community will be inconsequential in the face of such mounting violations.

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