2021 marks 12 years since the brutal killing of over 50,000 Tamils which shook the Northern Province of Sri Lanka back in 2009. According to the reports over 200,000 civilians were killed over the 30 years of cold war in Sri Lanka, a period which also saw the second highest number of disappearances in the world. The current president of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, back then the defense secretary in the government led by his brother President Mahinda Rajapaksa between 2005 and 2015, had direct responsibility for the conduct of government forces, which committed numerous International crimes, including indiscriminate attacks, summary executions, etc.
War crime allegations against the Sri Lankan government was raised by the international community following the end of the war. A panel of experts to investigate the allegations were appointed by the UN secretary general. Moreover, a special session were held by the UNHRC on May 26/27 2009, with regard to these war crimes, a week after the defeat of the LTTE by the Sri Lankan government. The resolution passed with 29 votes in favor, 12 against, and 6 abstentions failed to address serious allegations of violations of human rights by government forces, only despising the abuses committed by the LTTE and congratulating the Sri Lankan government for its victory.
Sri Lanka’s civil war ended 12 years ago this year, but even today, thousands of families with still-fresh wounds, struggles to find the truth about their missing loved ones. Sri Lanka has the second-highest number of disappearances with over 50,000 people missing. The Consultation Task Force (CTF) established by leaders of associations of Tamil families was promoted by the government to consult with communities across Sri Lanka on transitional justice initiatives in the UNHRC Resolution 30/1. Months later the Office of Missing Persons were established in 2018 by the previous government without a vote, even before the CTF had completed its consultations, failing to take into account the interim report on the OMP that was yet to be completed. It was recommended by the CTF to endorse a hybrid court and to ensure there were clear links between the different transitional justice mechanisms for better coordination. This ignorance by the government disappointed and worried the families of the missing, creating doubts that the truth commission OMP could turn into just another corrupted commission delivering no justice.
In 2019, Mannar mass grave, an early hope to find answers about the fate of the missing, was through an investigation revealed as a mass grave of remains of 300 years old and nothing to do with the war. Since Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s return to power as President in 2019, the Sri Lankan government has actively started silencing the cries for justice. Orders were sort against protesting Tamil families and restricting the protests under a guise to prevent COVID-19. North-East Tamils remains deeply skeptical towards the Office of Missing Persons which repeatedly failed to take their views into consideration with no progress made so far. Hence, the OMP has clearly failed to be an effective mechanism pledged by the previous government to probe disappearances.
Violence is a constant shadow of Sri Lanka with recurrent incidents of racist and inter-communal violence. On Easter Sunday 2019 when seven simultaneous bomb blasts shocked Sri Lanka, 26 years of painful civil war memories of an armed conflict that ended 12 years ago was recalled. The aftermath of the Easter bombings in 2019 was a death toll of 253 innocent civilian lives and the injury of several hundreds. The suicide bombers being Sri Lankan citizens, came from privileged backgrounds. The parliamentary investigation carried out primarily blamed the Spy Chief Nilantha Jayawardena for the failure to stop the attacks and not acknowledging the intelligence received about possible attacks seventeen days prior to the bombings.
Following the Easter bombings, the minority Muslim communities were targeted and demonized. Many Muslim-owned business, houses and mosques were attacked. Instead of justice being served for the lost lives, attention was shifted to the Muslim minorities by the Buddhist nationalist organizations backed by the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as well as that of the current president, the then-defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa to make calls for stoning Muslims to death. Rumors were spread accusing Muslim-owned restaurants and a Muslim gynecologist of sterilizing the Sinhala majority civilians. 21st April, 2021 marks two years of injustice for the lives affected. 7th of March, 2021 was declared as a “Black Sunday” as a protest demanding justice for all the lives lost and victims of the 2019 Easter Sunday terror attacks. The report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry failed to identify the real culprits behind the attacks. Also it has being indicated that the report of the commission is incomplete, suspecting that many files in the report have gone missing. Even though the Islamic State claimed responsibility, the Presidential Commission of Inquiry indicated that no direct link between the group and local attackers were to be found. It’s almost as if the commission was appointed to hide the real culprits instead of exposing them and serving justice.
With Gotabaya Rajapaksa being appointed as President in November 2019 promising to boost national security, ex and service military officers has being consistently appointed to key positions within the present government. The very Shavendra Silva who was publicly held responsible by the State Department for gross human rights violations was promoted by the President Gotabaya Rakapaksa to Acting Chief of Defense Staff and head of Sri Lanka’s coronavirus response team. Further, in February 2020, the Sri Lankan government announced its withdrawal from the UNHRC resolution 30/1 which included commitments made to the UHRC by the previous government to deal with the war crimes of the civil war and hold perpetrators accountable. With the government marching towards militarization and dictatorship demonizing democracy, intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders, victims, journalists and lawyers is on the constant run. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic was heavily militarized by the President of Sri Lanka placing in charge the military intelligence well known for their use of torture against Tamil civilians raising serious concerns about the targeted suppression of minority communities and activists.
It has being bought to attention that the updated draft UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka felt short on Tamil demands for an international accountability mechanism, failing to implement UN High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet’s recommendations which call on member states to consider asset freezes and travel bans on Sri Lankan officials credibly accused of human rights violations and to consider “steps towards the referral of the situation in Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court (ICC)”. The absence of a strong resolution towards justice will encourage human rights abusers globally that the island nation of Sri Lanka is willing to ignore and overlook even the most brutal crimes. The mere ignorance of the current government to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka strongly, signals the critical need for the international community to step up to ensure accountability through international justice mechanisms.
Laxmanan Sanjeev is a legal advisor and human rights activist from Sri Lanka, working with the United Nations Human Rights Council with a Special Consultative status ( ECOSOC). He is an alumni of the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program.