Photo courtesy of Toronto Star

As Sri Lanka marks the end of a long and bloody civil war 14 years on, the legacy of the brutal past remains unaddressed and continues to haunt the country. The root causes of the war have still not been dealt with along with enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and torture.

While playing for time and paying lip service to the international community, no concrete measures have been taken to bring by successive governments to bring about justice and accountability. Even the few steps forward such as the Office on Missing Persons and the Office of Reparations have proved to be ineffective due to a dire lack of political will to take the transitional justice process forward.

The international community is getting restive. Countries have taken unilateral steps to sanction several military commanders under the principle of universal jurisdiction because of evidence tying them to war crimes while organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Truth and Justice Project regularly publish reports on the dire state of human rights in Sri Lanka.

A good example of the government’s unwillingness to tackle uncomfortable truths is seen in a recent case where Sri Lanka came in for heavy censure from the Human Rights Committee (HRC) for its lack of cooperation in addressing a complaint of torture despite constant reminders to give its observations on the merits of the complaint. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Sri Lanka has ratified, the state is obliged to conduct an impartial, independent and effective investigation into the facts submitted by the complainant; prosecute, try and punish those responsible for the alleged torture and make the results of the measures public; and provide compensation for the violations suffered. The government must also to take steps to prevent similar violations in the future.

A former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadre, known as VM, is likely to be paralysed due to the injuries to his backbone caused by the alleged torture at the hands of police in Sri Lanka.

VM submitted documents to the HRC alleging that he was tortured in 2009 before he fled to Switzerland for safety. The HRC concluded that VM was assaulted, tortured and subjected to inhuman treatment while in detention and was denied the right to an effective remedy. The government has been given 180 days to reply on the measures it has taken to redress the situation.

VM filed his case with the HRC in 2014, alleging that he was abducted in January 2009 and tortured for his connection with the LTTE. The CID told him that he must work for it as an informant, which he refused to do. He was subject to severe torture although he told the CID that he had left the LTTE in 2000 and had had no further contact with the organisation.  

VM told the HRC that CID officers hit him with a cricket bat and wickets on his hip and shoulders, inserted pins through his nipples, tied a nylon rope around his toes and pulled him upside down and submerged his head under water up to 10 minutes. He was forced by a CID officer to sign a statement in Sinhala, which he did not understand. Taken to a military hospital, he had 18 stitches to his intestines and was warned by the doctor not to say that he was tortured. Denied a Tamil interpreter, he was finally released after paying a bribe and was granted a visa to Switzerland and given refugee status.

Geetharthanan Kulasegaram, who is part of VM’s UK-based legal team, represents people seeking asylum who have been subjected to torture in their home countries by advocating for their rights and providing legal assistance throughout the asylum process. His team works with the victims, gathering evidence to establish the credibility of their claims and ensuring that their stories are presented effectively before the British judiciary.

As a human rights activist, Mr. Kulasegaram assists victims by referring them to the relevant organisations, documenting their testimonies and presenting their cases to the UN bodies including to the HRC and other international mechanisms.

He answered questions from Groundviews on the HRC’s judgement, the failures of the Sri Lankan state and what should be done to ensure better justice and accountability.

Why do you think this judgement is important?

The importance of this judgment cannot be overstated. It has significant implications not just for the Tamil community but for victims of human rights abuses everywhere. For the Tamil community, this verdict is particularly meaningful, as many have lost hope in the face of repeated inaction by international bodies. This case represents a landmark decision because not only did a victim of torture receive justice, but the victim in this case is a former LTTE cadre. This sends a powerful message that torture is not acceptable under any circumstances. Beyond the Tamil community, this verdict has far-reaching implications for all victims of human rights abuses. It affirms that their voices matter and that they will not be silenced. It sets a precedent for other cases and sends a message that perpetrators of human rights abuses will be held accountable for their actions. Moreover, this verdict highlights the crucial role of international mechanisms in addressing human rights abuses. It demonstrates the importance of international cooperation and the need for international institutions to play a key role in ensuring that justice is served. Overall, the significance of this judgment cannot be underestimated. It is a crucial step forward in the fight against impunity and sends a clear message that human rights abuses will not be tolerated.

What does it say when the government does not bother to even reply to the HRC? 

When the government does not even bother to reply to the HRC, it speaks volumes about their lack of commitment to human rights and the well-being of the very civilians they are meant to protect. It is not only unreasonable but also deeply concerning. This lack of response undermines the trust and confidence that should be placed in local mechanisms to deliver justice. The failure to engage with the HRC raises serious questions about the government’s willingness to address human rights violations and hold perpetrators accountable. It sends a discouraging message to the Tamil community and other victims of human rights abuses, suggesting that they cannot rely on domestic channels for justice. This non-response further highlights the importance of international mechanisms in ensuring that justice is served. It underscores the need for independent scrutiny and oversight when domestic avenues fail to provide adequate redress. The government’s silence only reinforces the notion that seeking justice through international avenues may be the only viable option for the victims. As such, the government’s failure to even reply to the HRC demonstrates a lack of commitment to human rights and a disregard for the grievances and rights of the affected communities. It further strengthens the belief that local mechanisms alone may not be capable of delivering the justice and accountability that the victims deserve.

When it comes time to face the HRC, the government makes some right pronouncements but there is very little action afterwards so what is the point of HRC censure?

When the government makes seemingly positive pronouncements in response to the HRC but fails to take meaningful action thereafter, it raises questions about the effectiveness and purpose of HRC censure. While the pronouncements may give the impression of accountability and commitment, the lack of subsequent action undermines their credibility. However, it is important to recognise that HRC censure serves several crucial purposes. Firstly, it provides a platform for victims to have their voices heard and their grievances acknowledged at an international level. This recognition is significant as it validates their experiences and affirms their rights. Secondly, the judgements and censures issued by the HRC serve as a valuable compilation of evidence. They establish a precedent and contribute to a growing body of documented human rights violations. This evidence can be utilised in future cases and legal proceedings, strengthening the pursuit of justice and accountability. Furthermore, the HRC operates with a panel of judges who carefully evaluate the evidence and make decisions based on the principle of “beyond reasonable doubt.” These decisions carry weight and can have an impact on the reputation and standing of the government involved. While the lack of subsequent action by the government may be disheartening, the point of HRC censure lies in the recognition of victims, the compilation of evidence, and the establishment of international standards for human rights. It serves as a stepping stone in the broader fight for justice, providing a foundation for future efforts to hold governments accountable for their actions. As such, despite the limited action that may follow HRC censure, its significance lies in giving voice to victims, compiling evidence for future cases, and establishing international standards. The HRC’s decisions and judgements contribute to the pursuit of justice and accountability, even if the immediate impact on the government’s actions may be limited.

The government has been given 180 days to take remedial measures but what happens if it doesn’tt do anything?

If the government fails to take any action within the given 180 day period, it would be a clear indication of its disregard for the directives and recommendations of the international community. It would demonstrate a lack of commitment to addressing the human rights violations and rectifying the situation. In such a scenario, it becomes imperative for the international community to hold the government accountable for its inaction. This could involve further diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, or other measures to ensure that the government fulfils its obligations and responsibilities. Moreover, the failure of the government to comply with the remedial measures would perpetuate a culture of impunity and send a negative message to the victims and the general public. It would undermine the trust in the government’s willingness to uphold human rights and protect its citizens. Ultimately, it is essential for the international community, civil society organisations, and advocates for human rights to continue monitoring the situation closely and exert pressure on the government to take the necessary actions. This ensures that justice is served, accountability is upheld, and the rights and dignity of the affected individuals are restored. 

Is it enough to name and shame or are other measures such as sanctions necessary?

Naming and shaming alone may not always be sufficient to bring about meaningful change and ensure accountability for human rights violations. While it serves as a starting point in exposing and raising awareness about such violations, additional measures, such as sanctions, can be necessary to incentivise governments to take action. In this particular case, although the judgment has not explicitly named individuals, it has ordered an investigation with the intent to prosecute. This signifies a significant step forward in the pursuit of justice. The evidence presented has undergone rigorous scrutiny by judges, and the fact that it is considered a landmark case further emphasises its importance and potential impact. By setting a precedent, this case sends a powerful message that perpetrators of human rights abuses cannot act with impunity. It establishes a legal and moral framework that can guide future proceedings and contribute to the development of international human rights standards. While naming and shaming can lead to reputational consequences for governments, additional measures such as sanctions can exert further pressure and create tangible consequences. Sanctions can range from targeted measures against individuals involved in human rights abuses to broader economic sanctions that aim to compel governments to address the violations and implement necessary reforms. Ultimately, a combination of naming and shaming, investigations, prosecutions, and potentially sanctions can work in tandem to hold perpetrators accountable, deter future violations, and provide justice to the victims. The involvement of the UN mechanism in this case adds credibility to the process and instills hope that international avenues for seeking justice are becoming more reliable. While naming and shaming plays a vital role, other measures such as investigations, prosecutions and sanctions may be necessary to ensure meaningful accountability and prevent further human rights abuses. The combination of these approaches strengthens the impact and effectiveness of the pursuit of justice in cases like this one.

How many cases of torture from Sri Lanka have been recorded in the UK and is there a verification process?

There have been tens of thousands of recorded cases of torture from Sri Lanka in the UK and these are not mere claims but supported by substantial evidence and found credible by the British Judiciary. Forensic Medico Legal Reports, reports from organisations like the ICRC, testimonies from individuals who have experienced torture in detention centres, and reports from the Human Rights Commission in Sri Lanka all contribute to the verification process. Local newspapers have also highlighted cases of torture, and forensic legal reports from reputable organisations like Freedom from Torture provide further documentation and analysis. Swiss doctors, who have examined and treated survivors of torture, can attest to the validity of these cases. It is important to note that these are not just baseless allegations; they are concrete facts supported by robust evidence. Despite this, there have been instances where the Home Office has subjected these cases to excessive scrutiny, creating challenges for survivors seeking justice and protection. The high number of recorded cases and the extensive evidence available underscores the gravity of the situation and the urgent need for accountability. It is imperative that the UK government acknowledges and addresses these cases of torture, providing a fair and thorough verification process that upholds the principles of justice and human rights. In summary, there is a significant number of recorded cases of torture from Sri Lanka in the UK, and a verification process exists involving medical evidence, reports from reputable organisations, testimonies, and forensic analysis. As stated before, these cases are not mere claims but stone-cold facts supported by substantial evidence, and it is crucial that they are taken seriously and addressed appropriately by the authorities.