Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war ended six years ago amidst allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious abuses by both government and rebel forces. In 2011, a U.N. panel concluded that “the conduct of the war by [both sides] represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity.” A U.N. investigation is complete, but its report has been deferred to September.

Today, the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena has made welcome promises to hold perpetrators on both sides accountable, but it has yet to show tangible progress. Its decision last Friday to promote Jagath Dias as Army Chief of Staff raises real concerns: Dias is alleged to be responsible for serious international crimes during the last phase of the war.

Six years after the war’s end, here are six reasons why accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity remains critical.

Accountability will help war-affected communities heal from a violent past. As one Tamil woman explained in her recent letter to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights: “Each and every family in the Vanni region has been affected by the war.” Unless there is accountability, Sri Lanka’s war-affected families will never know what happened to their disappeared loved ones or be able to rebuild their lives.

Accountability may help deter future human rights abuses. Sirisena’s predecessor failed to deliver on promises of accountability, and troubling reports of post-war violations emerged. In 2014, Sri Lanka Campaign published a report pointing to post-war crimes against humanity committed against Tamils in the Northern Province. Another report documented systematic post-war torture and sexual violence of those perceived as having ties with the defeated LTTE. From an atrocity prevention standpoint, impunity paves the way for new human rights abuses to occur.

Accountability will help restore the rule of law and faith in a united Sri Lanka. Accountability matters to strengthen institutions and reestablish a commitment to the rule of law for all of Sri Lanka’s communities. Without accountability, there is the risk that Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority will feel little purchase in a united Sri Lanka, losing faith in the ability of state institutions and courts to deliver justice. Accountability will finally end decades of impunity for crimes by the LTTE, Indian Peacekeeping Forces, Sri Lankan armed forces, paramilitaries, and the JVP.

Accountability will promote reconciliation across ethnic divides. By apportioning blame on both sides, accountability will help challenge nationalist myths within the Sinhalese and Tamil communities about the Army and the LTTE and help shift blame from whole groups to the individuals responsible for alleged crimes. In particular, many war-affected Tamils would like to see prosecutions of senior officials on all sides—Army, LTTE, and paramilitaries—rather than lower-ranking foot soldiers. Pursuing accountability for those most responsible could therefore lay the groundwork for broader conflict transformation across ethnic divides.

Accountability will reaffirm and strengthen international law. In winning the war, Sri Lankan armed forces allegedly engaged in serious violations of international law, resulting in an “unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe.” Yet, after the war, Sri Lanka’s Defense Ministry held annual conferences to propagate the “Rajapaksa Model of fighting terror.” Israel, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal, Pakistan, India, Colombia, and the Philippines have reportedly studied the Sri Lankan approach. Unless the record is set straight, the Sri Lankan experience could stand as a dangerous model and threaten international laws meant to protect civilians during armed conflict.

Accountability will help Sri Lanka rejoin the international community. Under the previous government, Sri Lanka became increasingly isolated from the international community, leading the U.N. Human Rights Council to pass three successive resolutions to promote reconciliation and accountability. As U.N. Special Rapporteur Pablo de Greiff stated after his recent visit, by committing to accountability, Sri Lanka will be “rejoining the international community of rights,” through “an international system which Sri Lanka contributed to constructing.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi likewise expressed India’s hope that Sri Lanka “accommodates the aspirations of all sections of society, including the Sri Lankan Tamil community, for a life of equality, justice, peace and dignity in a united Sri Lanka.”

In short, Sri Lanka has a real chance to help all of its ethnic communities transition from a divided past to a shared, peaceful future, if it commits to accountability. Six years after Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war, accountability remains more important than ever.

Mytili Bala is the Robert L. Bernstein International Human Rights Fellow at The Center for Justice and Accountability, an international human rights organization dedicated to deterring torture and other severe human rights abuses around the world and advancing the rights of survivors to seek truth, justice and redress.

  • shan777

    Can you tell us why accountability didn’t matter in Germany, Japan in WW2. Also In Vietnam, Iraq Afghanistan etc.

    • Mytili

      Accountability after WWII (Nuremberg trials) laid the foundation for international criminal justice. The lack of accountability elsewhere stands as a cautionary tale.

      • Shan777

        I am talking about crimes committed by the winning allies, not only the nazis. Like carpet bombing of Dresden , Hiroshima etc.

        • Mytili

          Quite right that “victor’s justice” is a key critique of Nuremberg. But the lesson here is to be even-handed: pursue accountability on all sides.

          • shan777

            So we are the Guinea pigs of accountability.

          • Mytili


          • shan777

            No it’s cherry picking.

          • Disqust_ed

            shan77 is absolutely right – HR Violations only apply to third world countries. When the West does it, it’s called “Spreading Freedom and Democracy and Our Way of Life” ! 🙂

  • Kirthi

    The irony is they want the winners punished for defeating the bloody terrorist out fit. If the winners were the ltte terrorist group then alll accountabilities would be forgotten and the so called international community would have been busy hoisting and giving recognition to Eelam flag and dividing the country. Please note there are thousands of mothers and fathers who lost their infants at the hands of the bloody suicide boomers beside the thousands of soldiers lost on the other side too. Who would account for them.

    • JayN

      How about the state-sponsored terrorism dating back to the 1970s?

      How many people have been brought to justice?

      In an interview with the British television presenter David Frost, Chandrika Kumaratunga – who was the President of Sri Lanka from 1994 to 2005 – stated that at the time that her husband Vijaya Kumaranatunga was assassinated (in 1988), “Sri Lanka had killing fields; there was a lot of terror
      perpetrated by the government itself, state terrorism.”

      Last year, the Asian Human Rights Commission has recently published a report: Sri-Lanka:
      The Island of Mass Graves.

      According to the report:

      Mass graves in post-independence Sri Lanka were first reported following the 1971 youth uprising led by the Peoples Liberation Front (known locally as JVP) which was brutally terminated by the then government. However the locations of these post 1971 mass graves are hidden from the public knowledge. Numerous mass graves have been clandestinely created by the Sri Lankan government during the second youth uprising led by the same political party in the 1987-1990 period.

      • Disqust_ed

        By the same token, how many Western actors were ever brought to justice for crimes in Northern Ireland, Palestine and more recently, Iraq and Libya – Not a single one. We cannot have one standard for Noble Western Nations and another for Savage Barbarians of Sri Lanka

        But those who know the superiority of the West in all things will always want it to be so, right JayN ?

  • Disqust_ed

    Good ideas – especially “many war-affected Tamils would like to see prosecutions of senior officials on all sides—Army, LTTE, and paramilitaries”… Easy enough to find people to blame on the Army side, and perhaps even the Paramilitaries.. but who from the LTTE side will be prosecuted ? And what about the war-affected Sinhalese and Muslims ? As usual, they are being conveniently ignored.

    • Kirthi

      Exactly, that is what I too tried to emphasize.

      • Mytili

        There are former LTTE commanders still in Sri Lanka who could be investigated and brought to justice. Some of them were aligned with the previous administration.

  • JayN

    Impunity has long been the rule in Sri-Lanka where violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law are concerned, because successive governments wanted it that way.

    According to Amnesty’s report “Twenty Years of Make-Believe” published in 2009:

    1. There have been many Presidential Commissions and Inquires in Sri Lanka. Commissions of Inquiry have not worked as mechanisms of justice in Sri Lanka.

    Presidential Commissions have proved to be little more than tools to launch partisan attacks against opponents or to deflect criticism when the state has been faced with overwhelming evidence of its complicity in human rights violations.

    2. The failure of the Presidential Commissions and Inquires as a justice strategy has been demonstrated most clearly by the findings of the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), a group invited by the President of Sri Lanka to observe the Presidential Commission of Inquiry’s work, which concluded that
    the government of Sri Lanka was not willing to “investigate cases with vigour, where the conduct of its own forces has been called into question.”

  • Kailas Pillai

    In Lanka accountability has got eroded during the past decade. Corruption, nepotism and culture of impunity have taken roots under the immediate former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Mega projects were allocated without tender procedure. Lankans noted this and changed the leadership. Within weeks of change, mega-scale corruption allegations are surfacing. The immediate task for the new government led by President Maithripala Sirisena is obviously to clear the air. This is bound to be difficult because of the numbers and scale of corruption. Mahinda has lot of his supporters in high places.
    Investigation into human rights violation must go in parallel. It may pay to entrust this to UN who already have done some groundwork

  • Jayalath

    The people who are seeking a fair and acceptable accountability to those who lost love ones during the war is reasonable and imperative ,but imploring from the international hypocrites to open investigation into the matter will be unacceptable and controversial.
    Who are the international investigators and what could we expect from them ,also who could guarantee those internationalists are fair and impartial. You may remember they put it off till end of sep what they should have put forward on March . Which gives us some evidence of what they really expecting by being involved with internal affairs of our country . And Modi who came over here to advise us that how we should rule the country ,isn’t it dame shame of us ?? Hence , I believe those who really think off betterment of the country and its future those who must unconditionally engage with rest of the country men to seek permanent resolution to the burning issues, particularly to revive the relationship between us which caused to division us for decades . If some one suggests to end the resentment within few years and restore the reconciliation which will never be real as it may take decades ,perhaps generations . But important thing is laying up a quite solid foundation by now and building up the confidence gradually . But it urgently need a better internal dialog between us rather bringing and favouring to internationalists dividing and ruling sentiment into this . Then only we could build up a permanent solution in the internal interest .which is the only way to a meaningful accountability. Unless if we did not carefully handled this crisis within us or if we fell into international pitfalls which has been already in place that we may engulf into an eternal Unrest and anarchy.Which can be seen when considering to some politicians’s perception and behaviour on this issue from both side even today . You may have distinctively seen what did wingnaswaran try to raise in the provincial council recently . So, it is very important to understand the long lasting solution to this issue and every body ready to exercise responsibly . I hope that is the only way to achieve an authentic accountability and peace in the county