Photo courtesy of ABC News

The civil war ended on this day in 2009

Sri Lanka is grappling with its worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948. But amid this serious economic situation, Tamils on the island and around there world are going to commemorate the 13th anniversary of the civil war’s end on May 18, a war that lasted from 1983 to 2009, ushering in the so-called  Mullivaikkal massacre committed by the Sri Lankan Army.

Almost at a similar time every year on May 15, around 12.4 million Palestinians around the world commemorate the Nakba or catastrophe, which refers to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Israelis and the near total annihilation of Palestinian society in 1948. The recent assassination of Shireen Abu Aqleh has brutally exposed once more the suffering of the Palestinians.

Adding to the harrowing echo of these two crimes, ten civilians were shot and killed by British soldiers in the Ballymurphy neighbourhood of west Belfast between August 9 and 11, 1971 in what became known as the Ballymurphy massacre. On the 9and 10 of August, over 340 persons from Catholic and nationalist backgrounds were arrested, resulting in major violence and 20 deaths.

How are these heinous crimes interconnected? They have gone unpunished and unaccounted for. Crimes that were committed by the powerful against the powerless. This article will consider, against the background of the remembrance of Mullivaikkal, why remembering matters and why accountability matters for a world society.

Mullivaikkal massacre

The massacre of thousands of Tamils in the last stages of the civil war, which ended in May 2009 in a short strip of land in Mullivaikkal in Mullaitivu designated as a no-fire zone, by the government resulted in the deaths of nearly 40,000 Tamils in aclear violation of international humanitarian law.

During the conflict, the government bombed the region intensively while the LTTE fired at fleeing Tamil civilians as the UN had established in its report of the Untied Nations Office on High Commissioner for Human Rights.The internal review panel on the UN’s actions in face of the war in Sri Lanka, which is also referred to as the Petri Report, ascertained already in 2012, “Throughout the final stages of the conflict, Member States did not hold a single formal meeting on Sri Lanka, whether at the Security Council, the Human Rights Council or the General Assembly. Unable to agree on placing Sri Lanka on its agenda, the Security Council held several informal interactive dialogue meetings, for which there were no written records and no formal outcomes. At the meetings, senior Secretariat officials presented prepared statements that focused largely on the humanitarian situation. They did not emphasize the responsibilities of the Government or clearly explain the link between Government and LTTE action and the obstacles to humanitarian assistance. Nor did they give full information on the deaths of civilians.”

Sri Lanka evidenced the utter failure of the UN. In an October 2015 UN Human Rights Council resolution, the Sri Lankan government vowed to provide justice for wartime violations and to take additional steps to promote human rights respect. Lukewarm and hesitant efforts have been made toward fulfilling these obligations but none has been made toward ensuring justice and accountability. Until, today, the government of Sri Lanka has never fulfilled any of the promises made. On the contrary, the growing military presence in the Tamil homelands, the colonisation of it and the ever expanding anti-terrorism laws reduce the Tamils to being cannon fodder for the bio-political exercise of power of the majoritarian government. Even now in these days when the protests against the government are intensifying all over the world, the schism between those who have been afflicted and suffered could not be clearer; Sri Lanka might be post-war but it will not be post-conflict. It is a racialised society.

International law, truth and remembrance

Is there a right to truth for the victims of Mullivaikkal, Nakba and Ballymurphy? In a study on the right truth, the Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights held, “The right to the truth, in its individual or collective dimension, has been explicitly cited as a legal basis in several instruments establishing truth commissions or other similarmechanisms. Generally, legal acts establishing truth commissions ground themselves in the need of the victims, their relatives and the general society to know the truth about what has taken place; to facilitate the reconciliation process; to contribute to the fight against impunity; and to reinstall or to strengthen democracy and the rule of law.“

Surely, the right to truth is an idealistic and evident concept in the human condition. Truth is a famously difficult topic to define. It indicates objective credibility while simultaneously necessitating subjective comprehension. But it cannot be divorced from the value of human dignity.

Hence, should truth exist, how do we memorialise this truth?  What is the role of memory in post-war and post-conflict environments? Knowing the truth about the past is more than just an important step towards justice in the aftermath of a tragic conflict or repressive government. In the Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law, it prominently holds:

(d) An official declaration or a judicial decision restoring the dignity, the reputation and the rights of the victim and of persons closely connected with the victim

(e) Public apology, including acknowledgement of the facts and acceptance of responsibility

(f) Judicial and administrative sanctions against persons liable for the violations

Given that repressive governments frequently rewrite history and conceal atrocities in order to legitimise themselves, foster mistrust and even incite fresh cycles of violence, upholding this right is extremely crucial. To this end, international law has two effects on the memorialisation of crimes. On the one hand, international law develops narratives and permeates them with legal approval through international courts and adjudicatory agencies that publish judicial reports of violations. It also conveys memory directly and imprints into the global conscience by encouraging or even compelling states to hold public commemorations of specific traumas. International law becomes a memory maker in these situations. On the other hand, through regulating the production and circulation of historical information, it has an indirect effect on the social construction and transmission of memories. When seen in this light, international law serves as a memory facilitator. To this end truth seeking and remembrance aid in the construction of a historical record that is resistant to manipulation and builds the bridge to accountability.

Accountability is the mechanism of the hegemon

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights writes, “Accountability has three dimensions: it refers to the obligation of those in authority to take responsibility for their actions, to answer for them to those affected, and to be subject to some form of enforceable sanction if their conduct or explanation is found wanting. Responsibility requires that those in positions of authority have clearly defined duties and performance standards, enabling their behaviour to be assessed transparently and objectively. Answerability requires public officials and institutions to provide reasoned justifications to those affected by their decisions, to oversight bodies, and to the electorate and the public at large. Enforceability requires putting mechanisms in place that monitor the degree to which public officials and institutions comply with established standards, and ensure that appropriate corrective and remedial action is taken when this is not the case.”

When western leaders call, these days, for accountability for the war crimes committed in Ukraine, then it amounts to historical mockery. Aditya Chakrabortty wrote recently, “Western values. The free world. The liberal order. Over the three weeks since Putin declared war on ordinary Ukrainians, these phrases have been slung about more regularly, more loudly and more unthinkingly than at any time in almost two decades. Perhaps like me you thought such puffed-chest language and inane categorisation had been buried under the rubble of Iraq.”

Iraq or Afghanistan also await accountability and so does Cambodia or Chile. Accountability is the tool of the hegemon. If the Western hegemon evades accountability, like the British for their crimes on the island of Ireland or the Western-funded and supported Israelis for their crimes against the Palestinians, why should the Sri Lankan government be bothered about any calls for accountability? If you look at the history of war crimes there isnt one instance where a winner of a war has been tried before a Tribunal,said Sri Lankas permanent representative to the United Nations, Palitha Kohona, in an interview in the summer of 2009. Without interacting with the current political reality, expanding global justice is impossible. The political framework in which strong players, such as veto powers, nations, and regional elites, pursue their own political goals determines this reality. However, power dynamics within this political field are not fixed; non-state actors and social movements play a significant role in the battle for legislation and political power. Importantly, many proponents believe that a too strong division between the areas of law and politics will alleviate the difficulty posed by political interests. Therefore, the debate about the benefits and drawbacks of international (criminal) justice and its consequences must focus on the communities impacted. In this setting, collaboration with other disciplines, particularly with victims of human rights crimes and their communities, is critical. By analysing specific situations in terms of the effects of current impunity for past atrocities, it becomes clear that some sort of process of coming to terms with previous occurrences is required. The Tamils, Palestinians and Irish are located in different places but localised commonly. Transitional solidarity rooted in the commonalities of history should emphasise strategies for common action on accountability.


Mullivaikkal, Nakba, Ballymurphy: three upsetting, gruesome and heart-wrenching moments in modern history. The victims and their relatives: none of them have ever witnessed accountability for the crimes committed. The histories of Tamils, Palestinians and Irish are interwoven, narratives of the oppressed and marginalised.

The Mullivaikkal massacre was one of history’s most heinous pogroms, yet the persecution of Tamils did not end when it did and it shows no signs of ending anytime soon. Domestically, ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka cannot be resolved; the country’s minorities have sought this for decades with little success. Tamils, on the other hand, require an international process. The Tamil homeland will remain cloaked in an air of intentional agony until the world recognises Tamil suffering and promotes justice via fair and egalitarian policy.

Tamils, Palestinians and the Irish: whatever their geographical locations, their histories of oppression and shared suffering connects them. The cloak of impunity they have been facing for decades now is not a constant reminder for advocacy, but also a call for resistance to hegemonic amnesia. The act of remembering of all those communities is an act of resistance – resistance against the arrogance of power, resistance against the racialised governance, resistance against “Geschichtsklitterung”, as the Germans say, namely, the falsification of history. The oppressed must recover truth which becomes, to paraphrase Aeschylus, the first casualty of war. And it is this truth that holds the key to accountability for the crimes committed.

In the end, as Martin Luther King Jr said,  The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”