By Nimmi Gowrinathan and Kate Cronin-Furman, “The Washington Post’s’ Monkey Cage blog, October 1, 2015
On Thursday, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed resolution 25/1, a vote of confidence that the government of Sri Lanka can and will provide justice for abuses committed during the decades-long civil war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
It’s been a long road getting to this consensus. Since the war’s end in 2009, relations between Sri Lanka and the international community have been contentious. In 2011, an international panel of experts found evidence that state forces had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity on a massive scale. But former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government, buoyed by the majority Sinhalese ethnic group’s jubilance over the LTTE’s defeat, refused to investigate or prosecute the perpetrators of alleged mass atrocities. It was only with the removal of Rajapaksa from power in January’s stunning election that transitional justice became a possibility.
Sri Lanka’s new government has worked busily to assure the international community that it is making meaningful progress on human rights and to avoid the internationalized justice mechanism called for in the recent reportof the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Investigation on Sri Lanka. For them, the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution is a victory. But for the victim community, and their advocates, it’s not unambiguously cause for celebration. Even as the members of the Council commended Sri Lanka’s government for re-engaging with the international community, domestic civil society groups and international rights activists challenged the vagueness of the resolution’s call for Sri Lanka to ensure a “credible justice process.”
Sri Lanka has a long history of domestic commissions of inquiry that function as impressive political theatre but have limited capacity to provide redress. The acceptance of a (yet to be specified) role for international experts and the passage of a victims and witnesses protection act are encouraging signs that the new government intends to break with this tradition and embark upon a genuine transitional justice process. But the proof of a change will come in how Sri Lanka treats the most vulnerable victims of the long conflict – those who have survived sexual violence.
Dealing with sexual violence crimes has proven to be one of the biggest challenges for transitional justice, in both domestic and international forums. Testifying about rape and sexual assault exposes victims to the possibility of social stigma and even retributive violence. Even where measures have been put in place to reduce these risks, the testimonial process can be re-traumatizing. And given the evidentiary challenges of proving sexual assault crimes many years after the fact, victims may be forced to go through this harrowing experience and receive no benefit.
In Sri Lanka, these challenges will be particularly acute. During the summer of 2015, the research team for our report, “The Forever Victims? Tamil Women in Post-War Sri Lanka”, conducted more than 50 interviews with women in the former conflict zone and advocates and activists working in the region. We found that these women have repeatedly been failed by the institutions tasked with serving them – victimized by state forces over a period of decades, abandoned by the international community in the final phases of the war, and denied political and economic agency by a variety of actors in the conflict’s aftermath.
For many women who have survived rape, life is defined by their identity as victims, which grants access to social services and income-generating livelihood programs. Our interviewees spoke explicitly about the benefits and dangers they face by publicly identifying as a rape victim. As one woman noted about the three chickens she’d received from an international non-governmental organization: “I worry that the soldiers will see the chickens and know that I have told someone.” Another explained that she “is afraid to even remember anything from the past;” it’s safer to focus on the future.
Nevertheless, many Tamil victims of sexual violence (both male and female) have taken the risk of identifying themselves in order to demand justice. In public spaces ranging from tiny village community centers to Geneva’s Palais des Nations, they have told their stories. They have done this out of a desire that the truth be known, but also out of faith that their testimony is a step on the path to justice. But after years of telling their stories to one audience after another, this faith is starting to fray. As one interviewee told us, “we have talked so much about it, and it just goes nowhere.”
A new transitional justice mechanism brings the chance of redress, but it also presents the possibility of yet another fruitless exposure to trauma, stigma and retaliatory violence. As it currently stands, the new victims and witnesses law cannot ensure that victims are safe testifying and returning home afterward. And provisions have not been made for psycho-social services for those who will testify. The absence of these safeguards not only risks inflicting avoidable trauma on those testifying and knock-on destabilizing effects on their home communities; it could seriously hinder the work of the mechanism by disincentivizeing participation in the proceedings and inhibiting the quality of testimony of those who do chose to come forward.
Finally, the government has yet to remedy the interpretation problems that have been a hallmark of past commissions’ work. This is a critical issue, given that the victims speak a language (Tamil) that the majority population does not understand. Impediments to communication only contribute to the secrecy that surrounds sexual violence crimes. Without accurate translations of testimony that can be shared across communities, the new transitional justice process cannot hope to provide an honest reckoning of the past and contribute to reconciliation.
For Tamil women, fatigued and frustrated by years of deficient institutional responses to their needs, the stakes of Thursday’s UNHRC resolution are high. For those who are victims of sexual violence, this is doubly true. Failure to ensure their meaningful participation in Sri Lanka’s transitional justice process will only further entrench the culture of impunity and derail progress towards peace and justice.
Nimmi Gowrinathan (@nimmideviarchy) is a visiting professor at the Colin Powell School at City College and is the director of the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative. Kate Cronin-Furman (@kcroninfurman) is a human rights lawyer and post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University.