Photo by Ama Koralage

Fifteen years after the end of the civil war, Sri Lankan society remains as polarised as ever. While many international and national NGOs work tirelessly at the ground level to bring different ethnic and religious communities together and UN organisations press for justice and accountability for war crimes, the government’s duplicitous stance is causing heartbreak and disenchantment among survivors of the war.

The four pillars of the transitional justice process by which societies transition from a conflict situation to a stable peace – truth, justice, reparations and non-recurrence – are largely ignored and in some cases deliberately circumvented by successive governments who do not have the will to take the necessary hard decisions.

As a result survivors and activists have to appeal to the international community to put pressure on the government to meet its obligations under international and national law. Many UN organisations and global human rights NGOs have submitted numerous reports outlining the shortcomings of the country’s stance towards the war affected and have made many recommendations on the way forward.

It a comprehensive new report on accountability for enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) warns that “Without further resolution Sri Lankan social cohesion will continue to be harmed, with eroded trust in the rule of law and State institutions undermining the prospects of real reconciliation and unity.”

“Accountability must be addressed. We need to see institutional reform for reconciliation to have a chance to succeed,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk in a media release.

In a gesture of solidarity with war survivors, Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard will join acommemoration to all those lost to the civil war at an event in Mullivaikkal marking the end of the 26 year conflict.

In the run up to the commemorations, police arrested three women in the Trincomalee district for violating a court order that ruled against holding such events, citing reasons of public health and attempts to revive the LTTE. Police also disrupted events held in the Batticaloa and Ampara districts where participants prepared and served kanji (porridge) in a symbolic act to remember the gruesome final days of the battle when tens of thousands of civilians were killed in shelling and bombing by the armed forces.

Yasmin Sooka, Executive Director of The International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), an international non-profit organisation working since 2013 to protect and promote justice and accountability in Sri Lanka, answered questions from Groundviews on the slow progress of the transitional justice process and what pressure the international community could bring to bear on the government to adhere to its international obligations.

It’s fifteen years since the end of the war. What would you say are the major issues that remain unaddressed?

The structural impunity, denial, the lack of accountability and the complete failure by the successive governments to prosecute the security forces for the serious violations committed against Tamils during the war which ended in May 2009 are the major issues which plague Sri Lanka today. These violations include killings, enforced disappearances, the massacre of civilians including in the No Fire Safe Zones, the extra judicial executions of the political wing of the LTTE and their families who surrendered as well as the torture and sexual torture and cruel and inhuman acts, confirmed by the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) in September 2015. The perpetual denial by the Government of Sri Lanka that they committed serious violations amounting to international crimes remain a major obstacle to the work of any Truth Commission or transitional justice mechanism and negates any hope of building reconciliation. In this environment of denial and impunity, ongoing violations continue. In a recent statement by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, he reiterated the lack of accountability for war era violations and raised his concerns regarding “credible accounts received by my Office of abductions, unlawful detention and torture, including sexual violence, by the Sri Lankan police and security forces, some of which allegedly took place in 2023, mainly in the north and east of the country”.

Have there been any gains on the path towards transitional justice?

The Act passed by the Government of Sri Lanka to establish a Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation is deeply flawed. The government has failed to adequately consult with victims’ groups and civil society in accordance with international norms and standards. These norms and standards confirm the inalienable right of victims and their families to the truth, and where the evidence exists, to investigate and prosecute those responsible. A recent article published by the ITJP sets out the flaws in the legislation. Also, no transitional justice process can be credible and independent if it operates in the environment of the heightened security i.e., the intensification of surveillance and the ongoing harassment and arrests by security forces of civil society representatives, journalists and victims’ families including those who have been involved in organising commemoration events for war victims.

While successive governments may get short terms gains by dodging issues such as disappearances and lack of accountability, does this damage the country in the long term?

In the face of total impunity and ongoing gross human rights violations, establishing a Truth Commission in a country that has seen more that 36 such commissions over the last three decades is just another attempt to pacify the international community. It is particularly true given that the successive governments have failed to publish the reports of these bodies and implement their recommendations. Avoiding dealing with past violations (e.g., disappearances, the extra judicial executions, torture and sexual violence) will not serve Sri Lanka well and in the long term entrenches structural impunity, creating a permissive environment which allows the security forces to continue to commit ongoing violations even today. Ultimately, the lack of political will on the part of the state will damage the country in the long term.

Governments have made numerous promises but not followed through. Is it time for the international community to get tough?

Sri Lankans, particularly the families of the disappeared, would love for the international community to get tougher. Although they acknowledge that the UN Human Rights Council established the Sri Lanka Accountability Mechanism within the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (SLAP), they do not think this is enough. They want the international community to put pressure on the government to establish a Hybrid Court to deal with criminal accountability as President Sirisena’s government committed to in terms of the joint resolution 30/1 in the UN Human Rights Council in 2015. The Government of Sri Lanka under President Ranil Wickremesinghe has consistently opposed the notion of criminal accountability and would like to see SLAP not exist. Senior government officials have repeatedly told the UN Human Rights Council that Sri Lanka will establish its own commission to deal with the violations of the past. However, the current Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation regrettably does not offer the families of victims and civil society any hope that the crimes of the past will be addressed. There is no doubt that the international community should exert pressure on Sri Lanka to own their responsibility in terms of their obligations to victims and society. Unfortunately, this will not happen given that a number of countries are throwing their weight behind this bogus Truth Commission.

Western countries are displaying their double standards by refusing to halt the carnage in Gaza. Will this make it easier for states who are violating human rights to justify their actions?

The situation is Gaza is a challenge to the human rights system. The inaction and unwillingness to deal with the carnage in Gaza is a direct challenge to Western governments and will make it extremely difficult for future accountability efforts under the international legal system. However, the success of international law should not be conflated with either justice or liberation, as it still provides us all with a tool to hold governments and the international community accountable.