A promise of justice in Sri Lanka?

Displaced Sri Lankans stand behind a camp fence. © Sentinel Project

Displaced Sri Lankans stand behind a camp fence. © Sentinel Project

Over five years after the conclusion of Sri Lanka’s civil war, will victims finally see justice done? The country’s new government is taking steps in that direction by promising to establish a domestic inquiry within a month.

During an official visit to the United Kingdom last week, newly elected Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena expressed his plans to set up a special domestic investigative commission within a month that would inquire into the alleged atrocities committed during the last stages of the country’s decades-long civil war, which ended in 2009.

In a surprise victory earlier this year, Sirisena defeated then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka’s eighth presidential election. The former health minister built his presidential campaign on promises to reform power structures and establish “independent commissions in order to secure the impartiality of institutions such as the judiciary, police, elections, auditing, and the office of the Attorney-General.”

The win sparked hope that progress would be made towards ending the country’s culture of impunity.

In February, more than 60 civil society groups from 17 countries across Asia called for the Sri Lankan government to ensure that truth, justice and accountability are established through credible investigations into allegations of human rights and humanitarian law.

The joint statement also called for the government to constructively engage with the UN’s inquiry into the civil war and to incorporate its findings and recommendations into continuing domestic efforts. The groups entreated the government to seek the assistance and involvement of the UN, other international bodies and experts to ensure that domestic initiatives towards accountability, justice and reconciliation adhere to international standards and best practices.

Sirisena has said that the involvement of UN investigators in the planned domestic commission is unnecessary, but that their advice will be taken into account.

The government’s failure provide real accountability and redress after its victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009 prompted the UN Human Rights Council to open the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL)—an international investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. However, the Rajapaksa government refused to cooperate with the investigation.

In mid-February, upon Sri Lanka’s request, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recommended the deferral of the OISL report’s release until September, to reflect the changing context in Sri Lanka.

During a UN Human Rights Council session earlier this month, FORUM-ASIA stated that:

“mere political transition is not necessarily a guarantee for securing human rights… It is our hope that the OISL report will take this context into account and both meaningfully establish accountability for grave human rights violations and advocate stringently for sustained international scrutiny until tangible results are demonstrably achieved, on the ground.”

Civil society will monitor establishment of the domestic commission and encourage the Sri Lankan government to constructively engage with the UN to ensure that justice is done.

What do you think – what role should the UN play in Sri Lanka’s accountability efforts?

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2 Responses to A promise of justice in Sri Lanka?

  1. Long-term stability and post-war reconciliation can only be achieved through utmost respect, protection and promotion of human rights. The commitment needs to be achieved through organic changes in the domestic setting and solutions, not by a managerial approach to deflect human rights criticism on the international plane. The new government must stress its attention on engaging with the United Nations, strengthen the ties and enable knowledge-transfer and promote knowledge transfer in the field of human rights rather than maintaining the status quo and pursuing cosmetic changes like in the past. The COI has already – although only not discussed yet – proven to be of compelling and behavioural inducing nature: it is an international human rights vehicle to compel domestic human rights change, despite all contrary voices.

    The United Nations must seize the moment since it has the unique capacity to further human rights advocacy, protection and promotion. It needs to be backed, however, by the credible threat of human rights action, isolated from politicization and institutional distortion.

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