Photo courtesy of The Globe and Mail
A Supreme Court judgement, a new US law, Canadian sanctions and United Nations evidence gathering are making it increasingly hard for Sri Lanka’s past and present rulers to avoid accountability for large scale violence and abuse of power. Survivors and the families of victims across the island have played a key part despite attempts by those in charge to ignore or silence them. Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa, in particular, can no longer just get on with living comfortably and travelling freely despite credible allegations about numerous lives damaged or ended.
Addressing the truth about what happened and seeking justice cannot bring back the dead or restore all that has been destroyed but it may help to heal wounds, rebuild communities and prevent future suffering.
There are many grim images associated with the harsh mistreatment of Sri Lankans in recent decades by those wielding power. Some concern minorities, for instance Tamils murdered or driven from their homes in 1983 with the state’s backing, desperate civilians trapped between forces led by ruthless army and LTTE commanders in 2009 and bereft Muslim families denied the dignity and comfort of burying loved ones who died of COVID. Others are more recent such as hungry children and anxious parents linked to the current economic crisis connected with the misuse of political might.
There are photographs of those detained on flimsy grounds, assassinated or disappeared clutched by grieving relatives and pictures of bodies unearthed in mass graves. Each loss has left a gap.
With the help of survivors, families, advocacy groups and human rights defenders in Sri Lanka and beyond, much of what happened has been documented, evidence painstakingly assembled. This included sombre facts about the massacre of Sinhalese youth by soldiers under military commander Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the South in 1989 after his regiment had been involved in brutal fighting in mainly Tamil areas.
In November 2022, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence wrote to the Sri Lankan authorities. They drew attention to “alleged enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture, and extra-judicial killings, reportedly committed by Government security forces between May 1989 and January 1990, in the Matale District, in the context of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) uprising. The allegations received also refer to a complete lack of accountability and judicial action against the State authorities identified as the main perpetrators of the violations committed.” In the published version, individual names were redacted but this was about the area where the future defence secretary and president led the military.
This was important in terms of the UN’s own processes. There have been repeated reports and resolutions on Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council highlighting past and present abuses. In addition, there is a process, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which looks at the human rights records of all UN member states and Sri Lanka is one of the countries being reviewed by the UPR Working Group in Geneva in the next session, from 23 January to 3 February. The government’s own rather self-congratulatory report and more critical examinations of its human rights record by the UN and other stakeholders have been prepared, including civil society organisations, with discussion due to take place on 1 February.
This is likely to intensify pressure on the regime. As Human Rights Watch recently pointed out, under President Ranil Wickremesinghe as with the former president, human rights are being seriously violated. Several organisations jointly called for the release of a student leader held under spurious terror charges. Refusal to address past injustices reinforces how precarious the situation of ordinary Sri Lankans still is.
In addition, the work produced or compiled by UN specialists can potentially be used by governments seeking to take action to help address the needs of victims of human rights abuses worldwide and increase accountability.
In Canada in January 2023, sanctions were announced “against four Sri Lankan state officials responsible for gross and systematic violations of human rights during armed conflict in Sri Lanka, which occurred from 1983 to 2009… which would effectively freeze any assets they may hold in Canada and render them inadmissible to Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.” Those sanctioned were former presidents Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa, Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake and Lieutenant Commander Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi.
The US government signed into law a Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act allowing courts to prosecute alleged perpetrators who are in the US regardless of the perpetrator’s or victim’s nationality or where the crime happened although there are still uncertainties about how this will apply to historical abuses. Reportedly this has had an especially drastic affect on Gotabaya Rajapaksa who might wish to return to the US where he has a home, wife and other family members yet now fears he might be arrested if he does so.
Inside Sri Lanka in a ground breaking case, the Supreme Court ruled that former president Maithripala Sirisena and four officials should pay millions of rupees in compensation to victims of the Easter 2019 bombings and families because of their inaction which allowed this to happen. The state was also asked to pay extra and speed up overdue payments. This followed a long campaign by those affected and the Roman Catholic community. Far from quelling interest in who else played a part in enabling these terror attacks to happen despite warnings from within and beyond the Muslim communities, the court’s decision has intensified this. It is telling with regard to the level of trust that, in 2021, a former defence official felt the need to deny that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the mastermind behind the plot and that many Sri Lankans did not believe him.
“Whilst no amount of compensation can ever erase the suffering and pain of the victims and families, this judgment marks a step in the victims’ struggle for recognition of the harm suffered and their rights to truth, justice and reparation,” UN Human Rights Office spokesperson Jeremy Laurence commented on the Supreme Court ruling. “The UN Human Rights Office reiterates its recommendations to the Government of Sri Lanka to release the complete findings of previous inquiries into the Easter Sunday bombings and to establish a follow-up independent, thorough and transparent investigation with international assistance and the full participation of victims and their representatives and to hold all those responsible fully to account.”
The 2019 attacks not only caused large scale death and suffering directly, then were used as an excuse for attacks on innocent Muslim civilians, but also seriously damaged the economy. Those in power whose actions or failure to act harmed so many, including the moral and social effects of inflaming hatred and division, have much to answer for and are finding it harder to avoid the consequences of their choices.
Those most directly affected and their supporters have played a vital role in persisting the quest for justice, sometimes at a high cost. In Matale leaflets were handed out drawing attention to the UN letter, while in Canada survivors of torture in Sri Lanka welcomed the authorities’ crackdown on extreme human rights violators. When President Ranil Wickremesinghe visited Nallur in Jaffna recently, protesters gathered, including representatives of the families of the disappeared; when the police turned water cannon on them, some brought out shampoo to wash their hair.
There is still a long way to go. But the pressure to find a better way forward that safeguards the rights and dignity of everyone is becoming harder for those in power to ignore.