With the convening of the new parliament on 20th August in Sri Lanka following a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections that took place on 5th August, there lingers a cloud of growing uncertainty that first began to escalate ever since the government withdrew from the UN Resolution in March this year. By the end of the parliamentary session from the new government, it was revealed that there was hardly any discussion or attention given to address the issues of accountability and transitional justice. Therefore, questions remain unanswered.
With this issue not gaining any momentum, those who are being affected directly by this are the families of those who have been reported as missing or as disappeared during the civil war. The withdrawal from this resolution sets in motion a sense of deviation from calling for accountability towards alleged war crimes and other atrocities that were carried out during the civil war, including the enforced disappearances of some 40,000 civilians, as disclosed by the UN.
The UN Resolution was initiated in 2015 with the aim of promoting accountability, reconciliation and human rights obligations in Sri Lanka following the disappearances during the nearly 30 year long civil war, which ended in 2009. And before the issue slowly disappears into oblivion, the main question that should be asked from the government and the President himself is how they plan to counter this issue in terms of providing reparations to the victims and their families who have been left behind?
There is an international obligation that is yet to be fulfilled and a democratic process that should be maintained in this regard. Would the dismissal of abiding by the resolution mean that the new government of Sri Lanka would not favour accountability in future? It has been evident that the military forces call the shots in President Rajapaksa’s administration, especially during instances that recorded unfair treatment of civilians in the northern part of the country during the COVID pandemic setting.
One example was the inclusion of checkpoints in the northern region of the country, where mainly Tamil civilians live, and stringent searches being conducted by security forces along with discriminatory treatment that has been observed by activists in the region. This region also recorded a large number of arrests of those who were alleged to have violated curfew restrictions. On May 19th, 2020, which marked the day in which the terrorist group was defeated and which was officiated as National Ranaviru Day to commemorate the country’s security forces, President Gotabaya delivered a speech.
In it, he disclosed, “If any international body or organization continuously targets our country and our war heroes, using baseless allegations, I will not hesitate to withdraw Sri Lanka from such bodies or organizations.” From the get go, the President has been adamant about ensuring the protection of the Sri Lankan security forces from being held culpable for war crimes and crimes against humanity that occurred during and after the war.
The involvement of military powers into ministerial undertakings, the new gazette notification which was issued earlier this month indicated that the country’s Defence Ministry, Homeland Security and Internal Affairs and Disaster Management State Ministry will monitor a total of 35 state institutions which includes the Secretariat for NGOs and the Department of Immigration and Emigration among others. This raises questions as to the extent of control that the defence sector seeks to demonstrate.
This goes to only cement the feeling that with this sort of militarized approach, the country is going backwards in time where people in these regions that were once affected by a civil war and the remnants of it, are having to relive a glimpse of it to some extent. Once again, it is evident that this government intends to continue with its ‘militarized’ approach, which may last a number of years. The government has clearly neglected international obligations and the victims and their families have been entirely ignored in this process of transitional justice.
The government has a responsibility towards everyone who have been affected by this if the country is ever to work ahead to achieve reconciliation. How can one reconcile when no justice has been served and especially when there are unanswered questions that is staring us in the face? According to the publication ‘Transitional Justice and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR), if some level of reconciliation and progress is to be witnessed in Sri Lanka, then addressing such large-scale violations and offering reparations can ensure a level of positivity on the economic, social and cultural rights of those who have been affected.
Ever since the withdrawal from the UN resolution the families of the victims have doubted whether they will gain answers to their questions. Activists and families of these victims across 8 districts in Sri Lanka have taken to the streets and initiated protests but mainstream media and the government have turned a blind eye to this. Another topic that comes into light in the case of media and the government is the level of influence that is shone on the media which is, again, managed by owners with their own agendas. While those affected continue to not have their voices heard, their own country is letting them down in every way imaginable.
Reconciliation is a process that also should reflect on the element of trust and understanding. So, when the country’s own military forces are facing international accusations of war crimes, how can those affected and the victims who disappeared and those left behind ever sustain a sense of trust and continue forward in search of the truth? Arriving to the subject of reparations, there seemed a ray of hope when there were plans by the previous regime to initiate an Office for Reparations. The Act was passed in the Sri Lankan Parliament in 2018 and the government had also allocated Rs. 700 million in the 2019 budget for the office.
The objective was to identify and compensate victims who were left aggrieved due to the civil war and its aftermath and this undertaking was to become the nest step towards ensuring that transitional justice and the process of reconciliation would be properly implemented by the government. But, no light came of it during the final stages of the previous regime and even after President Gotabaya took office. So, there is doubt as to what steps the new government will plan on undertaking and whether they will even deliver. In the hope of giving the victims some closure and justice, NGOs such as Amnesty International have called for an independent inquiry by the UN Human Rights Council and to instigate a mechanism that would monitor accountability.
This step occurred following the country’s decision to step away from UN commitments. Alongside this is the lack of progress being reported from the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), especially since Gotabaya became President. Established under Act No. 14 of 2016, the initiation of the OMP seems to have been done following international pressure at the time and although a commission was appointed and mandates set up in line with the aspirations of the victims and families of the missing and disappeared, the results of this undertaking too has not been very promising thus far.
In 2015, the UN Human Rights Commissioner encouraged the setting up of a hybrid court system in Sri Lanka with the inclusion of international experts and prosecutors who would investigate and work to arbitrate alleged incidents of war crimes in Sri Lanka. Having said this, it would seem only plausible and timely that this gets initiated and seen through this time round. If the new government continues to introduce new mandates which would pave way for resistance towards international demands for change, then this would only hinder progress. The future of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation efforts remains bleak and ignoring this will only affect the country’s ability to deal with the legacy of its recent conflict.
Laxmanan Sanjeev is a legal advisor and human rights activist from Sri Lanka, working with the United Nations Human Rights Council on human rights, transitional justice, and refugee affairs in South Asian countries. He is an alumni of the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program.