Photo courtesy of Kumanan

“Already there are so many commissions. They came to the villages, met the people, and they wrote a report. All those reports are sleeping in their storeroom. Those are the true stories from the families. Some of them [family members] have already died. We have given all the truth and evidence already to all those commissions.” Relative of a forcibly disappeared person.

“Since my husband was abducted, I lost my freedom to do routine activities… Even if I go to the market or temple, they [security officers] ask, ‘Where are you going?’” Tamil woman from eastern Sri Lanka whose husband was forcibly disappeared in 2000.

The government’s proposed National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC) has come in for criticism from a leading international human rights organisation, which also condemns the ongoing persecution of victims’ families, human rights activists and media personnel giving voice to the lack of accountability and justice for the thousands of the forcibly disappeared.

“The government’s targeting of those campaigning for justice undermines the credibility of the latest initiative,” said Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a new report titled, ‘If We Raise Our Voice They Arrest Us’: Sri Lanka’s Proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission, charging that the NURC “appears to be primarily an attempt to deflect international pressure at the Human Rights Council from genuine truth and justice.”

“Victims of past violations, their families, and human rights defenders have rejected the government’s initiative because the government has not consulted them, ignores evidence gathered by past commissions, and it exposes them to security force abuses and retraumatization if they participate,” a press release by HRW on the report, which is based on over 80 interviews in Sri Lanka in June 2023 with relatives of victims of enforced disappearance, other victims of abuses, human rights defenders, activists and journalists in the north and east, said.

The report “documents abusive security force surveillance and intimidation of activists and campaigners from minority Tamil families of those who “disappeared” during Sri Lanka’s civil war. The authorities are using draconian counterterrorism laws to silence dissenting voices, including those calling for truth and accountability, while government-backed land grabs target Tamil and Muslim communities and their places of worship,” the press release said.

The report “shows why the proposed National Unity and Reconciliation Commission is not a serious step to obtain truth or justice for past international crimes. The government should genuinely engage with victims and affected communities and learn from previous efforts. It should build on the evidence collected and recommendations made by past commissions including the 2017 Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, which studied options for transitional justice. The government needs to end its ongoing abuses against victims, their families, and human rights defenders and activists seeking to enforce their rights. This means stopping and appropriately punishing members of the military, police and intelligence services who are carrying out surveillance and intimidation, repressing protests, abusing counterterrorism laws, and taking part in “land grabs” targeting minority communities,” it said.

The report makes the following suggestions:

To the Sri Lankan Government

  • Suspend the establishment of the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission and conduct genuine consultations with victims of abuses, families of victims, human rights defenders, and civil society groups to address their concerns, including with respect to safety and the risk of re-traumatization.
  • End the harassment and intimidation of victims of abuses, their families, human rights defenders and civil society activists, and allow Tamil communities to memorialize victims of past abuses.
  • Engage in a thorough review of past efforts, including through genuine consultations with former commission members, victims and their families, and civil society groups, to distill lessons learned.
  • Lay out a holistic process, based on consultations and review of previous commissions, that includes truth seeking, prosecutions before ordinary courts, meaningful reparations, and guarantees of non-recurrence.
  • Take concrete steps to advance accountability for serious crimes in violation of international law, starting with directing the police and attorney general to investigate and appropriately prosecute alleged rights violations, and ending efforts to block existing investigations and prosecutions.
  • Use evidence already gathered by previous commissions to support prosecutions and provide information about the fate of victims of enforced disappearance.
  • Invite international assistance to investigate and preserve evidence from mass graves.
  • End the practice of “land grabs” backed or carried out by state agencies in the north and east, and return improperly seized land.
  • Repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and ensure that any new counterterrorism legislation meets international due process and fair trial standards.
  • Cooperate with the UN Human Rights Council initiatives, including the Sri Lanka Accountability Project.
  • Ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

To Foreign Governments, the United Nations, and Other International Institutions

  • Call upon the government to end ongoing rights violations, including the surveillance and intimidation of victims and activists by security agencies, obstacles to memorialization of Tamil war victims, and the confiscation of land without full respect for the rights of local residents who have long used the land.
  • Do not endorse, fund, or otherwise support the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission unless victims and their families and civil society groups are genuinely consulted and their concerns addressed, including demonstrating a genuine commitment to prosecutions, witness safety, and preventing re-traumatization.
  • Send an unequivocal message that amnesty is not permissible with respect to international crimes and cannot be allowed as part of any commission or initiative.
  • Call upon the government to implement the recommendations of previous commissions, including acting upon the evidence they gathered, and disclosing the fate of victims of enforced disappearance.
  • Make available appropriate technical assistance to investigate and preserve evidence from mass graves.
  • Insist on time-bound steps to implement international pledges on human rights, including to the European Union under GSP+.
  • Hold the government to its commitment to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, call for an immediate mortarium on the use of the law and for the release of all those arbitrarily held, and urge the government to ensure that any new counterterrorism legislation meets international human rights standards.
  • Continue to support Human Rights Council initiatives on Sri Lanka and the Sri Lanka Accountability Project, including by renewing its mandate in 2024.
  • Consider bringing cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction for serious international crimes committed in Sri Lanka.

Read the full report here: