Sri Lanka: Impunity fuels recurrence of violence
On the tenth anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka’s three decade-long internal armed conflict, Amnesty International calls on the government of Sri Lanka to end impunity and put accountability for crimes under international law and human rights violations and abuses at the heart of its transitional justice process.
The horrific Easter Sunday attacks on 21 April 2019, that killed more than 250 people at three churches and three hotels, and the attacks that followed in its aftermath, are a reminder of the violence continues to haunt Sri Lanka.
Almost four years after Sri Lanka made commitments to transitional justice at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, there has been little progress on accountability for crimes under international law and other human rights violations and abuses. This failure to address key emblematic cases has hardened a climate of impunity, allowing ethnic and religious tensions to deepen social divides – such as during the recent attacks on Muslim homes, businesses and places of worship.
“It is worrying to see the recurrence of hostility and violence against ethnic and religious minorities in Sri Lanka. While the government has committed itself to a process of reconciliation, the wounds of the past will only heal if there is justice, truth and reparation,” said Biraj Patnaik, South Asia Director at Amnesty International.
“As long as there continues to be impunity for series crimes under international law, Sri Lanka will not be able to decisively break from that history.”
In 2010, the famous cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda was forcibly disappeared. Towards the end of the 26-year-long conflict, there were other cases of enforced disappearances. Sri Lanka has one of the world’s highest number of disappearances, with a backlog of between 60,000 and 100,000 alleged disappearances since the late 1980s. The families of the victims are still demanding to know the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones.
The ‘Trinco five’ case is from 2006, where five Tamil students were summarily executed allegedly by Sri Lanka's Special Task Force. Also, from 2006 is the killing of seventeen staff members of the French aid agency Action Contre La Faim (ACF) in Muttur. Victims of these human rights violations and their family members have continued to be denied justice.
The Welikada prison incident in 2012 where 27 inmates were allegedly executed, the abduction of eleven youth from Colombo in 2008/2009 allegedly by the Navy, the murder of Tamil politician Nadarajah Raviraj in 2006, the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of ‘The Sunday Leader’ in 2009 are just a few examples.
These are all examples of the times when the government of Sri Lanka failed to deliver justice for victims. There is a lack of political will to implement a credible accountability process, which is only holding the country back on its human rights obligations.
Resolution 30/1 at the UN Human Rights Council
The Sri Lankan government in Resolution 30/1 had committed itself to establishing four mechanisms, Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-Recurrence, the Office on Missing Persons, the Office for Reparations and a Judicial Mechanism with a special counsel. The government recommitted itself to the resolution twice over through resolutions 34/1 and 40/1. The pace at which the government has handled this entire process is disappointing.
“It has been more than three years since Resolution 30/1 was passed and the delay has affected victims’ faith in the entire transitional justice process. It is important for the Government of Sri Lanka to fulfil its obligations to ensure justice and provide effective remedies to victims of crimes under international law committed during the armed conflict,” said Biraj Patnaik.
Sri Lanka’s President pledged to return to rightful civilian owners all remaining land in the North and the East of Sri Lanka by the end of 2018, however the military, civil defence forces and other state agencies continue their occupation, ten years since the end of armed conflict.
Office on Missing Persons
While Amnesty International welcomes the Government’s establishing the Office on Missing Persons, it is concerned that it has reneged on key commitments, particularly on accountability.
“Families of the disappeared are still waiting for the truth of what happened to their loved ones and the families of the those who surrendered at the end of the war in 2009 and were later disappeared, are losing faith in the government mechanisms, which have not yet provided any answers. People in war affected areas continue to protest for answers,” said Biraj Patnaik.
Prevention of Terrorism Act
One of the other key commitments made by the government to the Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 was to review and repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and replace it with anti-terrorism legislation, in accordance with contemporary international law and standards.
However, the PTA continues to be used by the government. Attacks on human rights defenders and journalists in the country have reduced, but lack of accountability means they are vulnerable to future attacks.
Those still detained under the PTA with suspected links to the LTTE, must either be charged with an internationally recognizable crime of be released.
“Sri Lanka owes its citizens a future that is not marred by recurring conflict. All those suspected of criminal responsibility for human rights violations and abuses, both from the state and non-state armed groups, must be held to account before ordinary civilian courts in order to guarantee non-recurrence. On the tenth anniversary of the end of the three-decade long war, it is a reminder for Sri Lanka to not let history repeat itself and give people the justice they have been waiting for,” said Biraj Patnaik.
In 2015, Sri Lanka co-sponsored Resolution 30/1 at the UN Human Rights Council to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights in the country. This was the opportunity for the newly elected government to demonstrate its commitment to break with impunity for a past imbued with serious human rights violations.
These were critical post-armed conflict reconciliation and transitional justice commitments. Despite being given two extensions, each for two years, key commitments in the resolution have not been implemented. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) process set up in 2010 by the then government also failed to embark on effective transitional justice for affected persons.
Legislation relating to the Office for Reparations was approved in October 2018, and members were appointed to the Office in April 2019. While the legislation regarding the Commission for Truth, Justice Reconciliation and Non-Recurrences has reportedly been approved by cabinet, the bill is yet to be made public.
Amnesty International urged the international community- especially the UN Human Rights Council, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – to ensure Sri Lanka’s specific and time-bound delivery of its own commitments.