by Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace & Justice, London, March 2021
Following a landmark international investigation, in September 2015 the United Nations released a major report on serious human rights violations committed during the final stages of the civil war and the surrounding period (2002-2011). The document, known as the ‘OISL Report’ was clear in its view that many of those violations – perpetrated by both government of Sri Lanka and LTTE (‘Tamil Tiger’) forces – could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity if established in a court of law. It made a number of recommendations as to how Sri Lanka might begin to address these violations in order to lay the foundations for a sustainable peace.
The national unity government that came to power in Sri Lanka in 2015, acting through the UN Human Rights Council, made a series of promises to deal with the legacy of the war in Human Rights Council (HRC) Resolution 30/1, which was co-sponsored by the government and unanimously adopted by HRC members in October 2015.In response to limited implementation, the HRC has since adopted a further two “roll over” resolutions: Resolution 34/1 (March 2017) and Resolution 40/1 (March 2019). Resolution 40/1 expires in March 2021, when the High Commissioner is due to represent a comprehensive report.
In February 2020, the government of Sri Lanka, led by newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, formally withdrew from the resolution process at the Human Rights Council. Instead, the government announced that it would pursue “an inclusive, domestically designed and executed reconciliation and accountability process.”
This report, the last of our Keep the Promise series, assesses where limited progress made against the 25 commitments in Resolutions 30/1, 34/1, and 40/1 has been reversed since Sri Lanka’s withdrawal. This evaluation is based on various media reports, analyses by civil society groups, and the findings of UN human rights mechanisms and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
In our last report (February 2020) we found the overwhelming majority of the commitments made by the government of Sri Lanka remained either mostly or completely unachieved. Just one of the four key transitional justice mechanisms pledged had been fully operationalised. Almost nothing had been done to tackle Sri Lanka’s deeply rooted culture of impunity, which lies at the heart of repeated cycles of mass violence in the country.
One year on, and our analysis is deeply troubling. Far from making progress on a “home-grown” process, the government of Sri Lanka has wound back the clock on the admittedly limited progress made by the previous administration. Key transitional justice mechanisms are no longer independent and under threat, and more fundamentally, respect for the rule of law and human rights has demonstrably diminished.
Following his election in November 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has pursued an increasingly majoritarian, militarised, and authoritarian approach to governance. In his former capacity as Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been credibly accused of involvement in war crimes during the final stages of the civil war in 2009, when tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed, as well as assassinating and disappearing critics in the period after the war.
There has been a major crackdown on dissent, with lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders, and victim-survivor communities facing increased intimidation, surveillance, and harassment. Hejaaz Hisbullah, a prominent human rights lawyer, has been held without charge under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) since April and has been denied his due process rights. His case is one among many that have created a climate of fear among activists and minority communities. The COVID-19 pandemic has been used selectively to suppress protests and memorial events, particularly in the Tamil-majority North and East.
In October 2020, parliament passed the 20th Amendment, which represents a major assault on democratic governance and removes almost all checks and balances on the power of the executive President. It severely undermines the independence of key institutions, including the judiciary, the human rights commission and transitional justice mechanisms established under the Resolution 30/1 process, by giving the President sole control over senior appointments.
The rule of law is under attack, with the limited progress made in a few emblematic cases undermined by procedural invasions and intimidation of witnesses and victims. Several key cases have collapsed, including the murder investigation against government ally and former paramilitary Pillayan. Political interference in the police has led to senior investigating officers being transferred away from investigations, and the former head of the Criminal Investigations Department has been arrested. In March 2020, the President pardoned a former soldier who was convicted of murdering eight Tamil civilians in 2000, one of the only soldiers to have been convicted for a wartime atrocity.
The President has appointed family members, allies, and former military leaders who are also accused of mass atrocity crimes, including his brother and former President, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, to key government positions. Over a quarter of the current cabinet have been investigated for corruption, violence, and common criminality. Civilian positions have been militarised, with four government departments headed by former military commanders, including health and agriculture.
The heavily militarised response to COVID-19 led by Army Commander Shavendra Silva has created fear among minority communities, especially Tamils. Military intelligence officers have been placed in charge of contact tracing, strengthening surveillance networks which threaten activists and victim communities. The pandemic has been used as a cover for discriminatory policies which particularly affect Muslims including banning the burial of COVID-19 victims contrary to WHO guidelines.
Analysing promises of a domestic process
The Government of Sri Lanka has tried to dismiss calls for greater international action on Sri Lanka, saying that it is committed to a domestic process to deliver reconciliation and justice. But how could a government which has repeatedly promoted individuals credibly accused of mass atrocity crimes deliver a credible accountability process?
Senior figures in the Sri Lankan Government, from the President to the Defence Secretary, have repeatedly said that they will protect the military from prosecution for crimes. No security sector reform has taken place, and individuals accused of human rights violations occupy key positions in the government and the armed forces. Changes to the Constitution which reduce the independence of key institutions and increasing political interference in the judicial process are a serious concern.
Victims and survivors have already been waiting more than ten years for justice. Pardons, delays, and collapse of the few cases that are before the courts show that the domestic justice system is not capable of delivering justice alone.
Testimony from Tamil victims and war survivors collected in 2019 (from A Decade of Impunity: Unlocking Accountability for the Victims of Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields).
In light of ongoing impunity and threats to the rule of law and human rights, the Sri Lanka Campaign urges member states to:
1. Support a new resolution to keep Sri Lanka on the agenda of the Human Rights Council, which mandates enhanced monitoring by the Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) and regular reporting to the Council, establishes a mechanism that builds on the work of previous UN investigations to gather, preserve, and analyse evidence for future investigations and prosecutions, and instructs the High Commissioner to produce a report on accountability options.
2. Enhance efforts to attain accountability for serious human rights violations in spite of the lack of domestic political will, including by:
- Challenging state-sponsored obstruction and interference of the small handful of cases that are proceeding through the ordinary criminal justice system in Sri Lanka, including the threats to victims, witnesses, and investigating officers.
- Implementing the recommendation of the UN Human Rights Commissioner, “to investigate and prosecute international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lankan through judicial proceedings in domestic jurisdictions, including under accepted principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction.”
3. Denounce the crackdown on civil society and call on the government to immediately halt attempts to intimidate and harass activists, journalists, and victim groups, especially the families of the disappeared.
4. Immediately review all forms of bilateral engagement with Sri Lanka, including in the spheres of aid, trade, and security cooperation, to:
- ensure that Sri Lankan officials accused of grave human rights violations are deprived of political and material support – and consider targeted sanctions, travel bans, and asset freezes against the most problematic individuals.
- halt engagement with Sri Lanka’s armed forces and police without meaningful security sector reform, including the removal of individuals credibly accused of human rights violations including enforced disappearances, sexual violence, and torture.
Here we evaluate the progress made with respect to each of the government of Sri Lanka’s 25 commitments under Resolution 30/1. To take account of the government’s withdrawal from the resolution in February 2020 and illustrate change over the last year, in this year’s update we have retained the colour-coding from last year’s update and added additional symbols to indicate whether progress has halted or been reversed.