Photo courtesy of Kumanan

Failure to hold the powerful accountable for misusing their power and inflicting damage on other people has harmed large numbers of Sri Lankans. This has been pointed out across the country and the world. Although accountability is often seen as an issue affecting ethnic and religious minorities or those focusing on past wrongs, it has been pointed out that failure to achieve this badly affects the present and threatens the future for most Sri Lankans.

Injustices unrecognised, victims and survivors undermined

In May 2009, Sri Lanka’s civil war came to a brutal end with massive civilian casualties. Both state and LTTE commanders oversaw grave violations of laws on armed conflict and human rights as had happened many times before. Killing of the defenceless, torture, rape, kidnapping, locking people up in appalling conditions, bombing, shelling, ethnic cleansing, use of child soldiers and human shields by the LTTE and violation of constitutional rights and basic duties by the government had come to seem normal. Despite repeated promises by the authorities, accountability is still denied to survivors and the families of victims, some of whom have not been informed as to what happened to their loved ones.

In addition, many non-combatants were killed during the suppression of the rebellion in the late 1980s by the JVP, which also committed unlawful killings. But in such cases too those in charge of the armed forces have not had to answer for their actions and many relatives do not know where their families’ remains are.

Pleas and protests by those Sri Lankans worst affected have been largely ignored or suppressed. UN officials and human rights bodies, international human rights organisations and some overseas governments have backed these calls but been fobbed off in turn. In 2015 and again 2017, in resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), the government agreed to work with the UN towards promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights yet progress was very limited and a later regime abandoned this pledge. Instead bereaved families and human rights defenders were harassed, minorities further victimised and human rights blatantly violated in other ways.

One of the few soldiers ever to be convicted after the gruesome murder in 2000 of a 5 year old, some teenagers and Tamil adults whose bodies were dumped in a toilet pit was pardoned by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the dismay of many in Sri Lanka and beyond. The president himself has been credibly accused of multiple violations against people of the majority as well as minority communities while others suspected of horrific crimes continued to be placed in senior positions even after he was ousted and Ranil Wickremesinghe became president.

Yet calls for justice by Sri Lankans could not be silenced and kept being echoed at international level. In line with HRC resolutions in 2021 and 2022, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights began assembling and analysing evidence and considering how, even without the regime’s cooperation, accountability could be advanced.

UN human rights experts pointed out how the notion that the powerful and well-connected should not be held accountable for their misdeeds was causing damage throughout the country. “Lack of accountability at all levels remains the fundamental main human rights problem. Whether it refers to war crime atrocities, post-war emblematic cases, torture and deaths in police custody, excesses in crowd control, corruption and the abuse of power, Sri Lanka suffers from an extraordinary accountability deficit that unless addressed will drag the country further behind,” in the words of a report in September 2023 by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk.

He returned to the theme in an oral update at the HRC in March 2024, mentioning that although “Two years ago, tens of thousands of Sri Lankans took to the streets demanding deep democratic reforms and accountability for economic mismanagement and corruption, which resulted in the most severe socio-economic crisis in a generation,” serious problems remained and indeed new repressive measures were being introduced.

He pointed to the flaws in the latest government plans to stave off genuine accountability. “While the Government has introduced a draft legislation for a Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation, the environment for a credible truth-seeking process remains absent.” He urged the government to “undertake credible accountability measures to investigate and prosecute past and present human rights violations and economic crimes. I also urge Member States to continue to reinforce these efforts, including through appropriate use of universal and extra-territorial jurisdiction and targeted measures against credibly-alleged perpetrators of serious human rights violations and abuses.”

In his view, “It is only through addressing the root causes of the country’s conflict and economic crisis, and ensuring accountability, that Sri Lanka will be able to enhance its prospects of achieving genuine reconciliation and sustainable peace and development.”

Obstacles to accountability and resulting risks

Recently international transitional justice and human rights scholars have lent their support to calls from victims and survivors to abandon plans for an ineffective commission instead of justice and accountability. In some cultures there is an emphasis on restorative justice rather than punishment but this is clearly not the issue in Sri Lanka. While the JVP has apologised for killing 6,000 people during its rebellion, most senior perpetrators remain unapologetic. Those wielding state power or with friends in high places have often caused further hurt and division through ongoing injustices.

Whereas a number of LTTE leaders died at the end of the civil war and certain Tamil politicians have since condemned atrocities it carried out, other prominent figures are unwilling to admit that the violence and other abuses it inflicted on defenceless Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese people were wrong. Overall, many of those most harmed by the security forces or other armed groups continue to eke out a precarious living with no public apology for what was done to them or their loved ones nor any guarantee that a society has been created in which nothing of that kind could happen again.

Meanwhile people who have carried out minor offences or are perceived as being something of a nuisance can face harsh penalties. The International Commission of Jurists recently drew attention to Sri Lanka’s Vagrants Ordinance under which homeless people, beggars and sex workers can be locked up, sometimes indefinitely, rather than being offered social services or health-related support where required. Hence being destitute may result in harsher penalties than ordering mass killing of civilians or presiding over torture on a major scale.

It is clearly not the case that Sri Lankans as a whole are simply callous even if some of the most powerful and prosperous seem insensitive to the suffering of those outside their own circles. Many people are kind to their neighbours and there has been much sympathy across communities for the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, without condoning Hamas abuses.

One obstacle is that considerable power is still wielded by the Rajapaksa family against whom plausible allegations of serious international humanitarian law and human rights abuses are stacked up like a tower. Taking them on might seem too hard or risky, setting a worrying precedent of apparent immunity even in the face of damning evidence.

For some, thinking too much about the past may be too distressing; with proper support, greater public openness might open the door to healing but such help and care might not be available. In addition, during decades of conflict, many people at some point carried out or colluded with abuses or had close family members or friends who did. While some now regret this, guilt and shame can encourage denial. Those with loved ones who fought and died on whatever side may feel it would be being disloyal to their memory to be too critical.

Yet it should be possible to mourn dead fighters and recognise their courage while asking searching questions of those political and military leaders who sent them into battle, sometimes also giving orders which placed them in difficult moral situations. More generally, it is all too easy for fallible humans to be swept away by toxic rhetoric, social pressure, fear or anger. So perhaps there should be a focus on holding to account those with greatest responsibility or who committed especially grave offences but also publicly recognising the wrongs done and taking action to minimise the chance that this will happen again.

Moving forward

Unless there is a shift towards greater accountability, the notion that might is right or that those with most clout can keep getting away with murder, literally, may further take hold. And toxic forms of ethnic nationalism and religious bigotry, disdain for the poor and marginalised and contempt for women and girls will persist in wreaking havoc while bitter resentment may fester with sometimes explosive results.

Fifteen years after the war ended, amid terrible suffering, achieving accountability is still a challenge. Facing up to past and present injustices in a way which does not focus just on what “they” did and gloss over misdeeds by those on “our” side or harm to people with whom it is harder to identify, is vitally important. This will not be easy yet may open the door to opportunities for healing and a better, safer, more just and compassionate future.