A Reckoning on Sri Lanka War Crimes

'New York Times' editorial, September 17, 2015

The United Nations Human Rights Council released its report Wednesday on possible war crimes committed during the last years of the Sri Lankan civil war. As many as 40,000 Tamils were killed by the military during the final months of the conflict, which ended in 2009. Citing a “horrific level of violations and abuses” in its report, the council concluded that a “purely domestic court procedure will have no chance of overcoming widespread and justifiable suspicions fueled by decades of violations, malpractice and broken promises.” This is a clear rejection of the proposal made on Monday by Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera, who told the Council that his government would set up a truth, justice and reconciliation commission, and draft a new constitution.

The Sri Lankan government refused any international investigations during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who presided over the military’s push to end the Tamil insurgency in 2009. This led the United Nations to proceed in March 2014 without Sri Lanka’s cooperation. When Mr. Rajapaksa was defeated in January elections, the council delayed its report to allow the new government of Maithripala Sirisena to come up with plans for national reconciliation and to work with international investigators.

Mr. Sirisena has promised to heal ethnic and religious divisions. On Sept. 3, an ethnic Tamil, Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, was named leader of the opposition in Parliament, the first Tamil to hold the post since 1983. But many Tamils and others seeking accountability in Sri Lankahave remained rightly skeptical of the ability of any Sri Lankan government to carry out its own investigation, punish perpetrators of abuses and guarantee the safety of witnesses. Two military leaders who oversaw the operations in 2009 — the army chief of staff, Jagath Dias, and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka — have been promoted under Mr. Sirisena. Tamils in the north remain under military occupation, and abuses are alleged to have continued under Mr. Sirisena’s government.

In its report, the United Nations council calls for a special court that would include international magistrates and investigators. This is the only way to ensure that those who committed war crimes are held accountable and victims get justice. Mr. Sirisena’s government should cooperate in setting up the court without delay.


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