The much-anticipated report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) provides a momentous opportunity for Sri Lanka to atone for the atrocities of its civil war.
The OISL was set up in March 2014 pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 25/1 [pdf] to undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and human rights abuses by the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). On the basis of a “reasonable grounds to believe” standard, the OISL concluded that both parties to the conflict are likely to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The 280-page report (part 1 and part 2) documents a “horrific level of violations and abuses” that are “among the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole.” Sri Lankans must now sever ties with this violent past by embracing accountability and reconciliation. Implementing the OISL’s recommendations will be the first step in this journey.
The OISL focussed on a period of 9 years (2002-2011) but its report traces the complexities of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war: the post-independence government policies that favoured the Sinhalese majority disadvantaged by colonialism – ostensibly offering them redress but effectively marginalising and radicalising segments of the Tamil community. Tamil separatists’ calls for a separate state began in the 1970s. In 1983, after the LTTE killed government soldiers, the communal violence of “Black July” set the country firmly on the warpath, though hostilities waxed and waned thereafter. In 2006, at least 520,000 Sri Lankans were displaced by the conflict – one of the largest displacement crises in Asia. The LTTE’s crushing defeat by government forces officially ended the conflict in May 2009.
As the final battles raged in 2009, civilians sought refuge in “safe zones” or “No Fire Zones”. They were neither safe nor spared fire. Government forces repeatedly shelled hospitals, humanitarian facilities and food distribution centres in these zones, although these were not used for military purposes. In one incident in April 2009, at least 50 IDPs (including children) were killed during the deliberate shelling of a clinic distributing a rare commodity – milk powder. On its part, the LTTE constructed military fortifications adjacent to areas surrounding IDP concentrations, and beat and killed civilians trying to escape the fighting. Trapped and targeted, civilians were deprived of medical supplies and starved due to restrictions placed on humanitarian assistance and access. Almost 300,000 IDPs who survived the war were detained in military-guarded camps in appalling living conditions.
These rampant violations in the final battles were a culmination of the wide-ranging abuses that marked the hostilities. First, unlawful killings – LTTE suicide bombers being a notorious trope of this conflict. Sri Lankan forces and linked groups also engaged in the widespread killings of civilians, politicians, journalists and humanitarian workers. As of 2013, Sri Lanka recorded one of the highest numbers of humanitarian workers killed globally. Second, extreme levels of disappearances – the second highest worldwide [pdf]. The majority of victims were individuals perceived to have links with the LTTE. Men were the main targets but women bore its devastating brunt as the survivors in culled families, looking for their loved ones in the face of constant intimidation.
Torture by Sri Lankan security forces was a particularly cruel and brutal feature of the conflict. While widely practised throughout the conflict, its use heightened in the aftermath of the LTTE’s defeat. Thousands of former LTTE cadres or those suspected to be linked to the LTTE (including children) were held in detention and “rehabilitation” centres. The OISL documents torture at these locations as well as in army camps, police stations, and secret locations. Victims provided harrowing accounts of their detentions that sometimes lasted several years: being stripped naked, hung upside down and beaten unconscious, waterboarded, partially suffocated with petrol and chili powder fumes, burnt with cigarettes, branded with heated metal rods, and having their nails removed.
Sexual violence was another form of torture inflicted by the security forces against men and women alike. One of the most disturbing findings of the OISL was the prevalence and extreme brutality of sexual violence in Sri Lanka.
The report also highlights the LTTE’s long-standing practice of abductions and forcible recruitment of adults and children, which intensified towards the end of the conflict. The OISL documents the mayhem that ensued when the LTTE broke down the door to a church sheltering IDPs in March 2009. Amidst the unheeded protests of their family members, several hundred children and young adults were snatched by the LTTE to join its diminishing ranks.
Sri Lanka’s track record of domestic accountability mechanisms is abysmal. Years of denial, delays, ineffective commissions of inquiries, sham investigations, and reprisals against those seeking justice are its hallmarks. Victims deeply distrust domestic processes. In this highly politicised and divided environment, the establishment of a hybrid court with international staff – a key OISL recommendation – would address the severe deficit of independence and impartiality that has eviscerated domestic accountability thus far. Robust witness protection legislation must be implemented to complement the work of the court. The OISL also recommends institutional and structural reforms of the security and justice sectors to address systemic flaws.
In contrast to the previous government’s unyielding opposition to the OISL, the new Sri Lankan government elected in January 2015 has adopted a conciliatory tone. Yet, eleven cases of torture and sexual abuse have been recorded under the new government’s watch, evidencing continuing patterns of violations. Some perpetrators, tellingly, were not masked when torturing, underscoring their perception of immunity.
The OISL report will be formally presented at the Human Rights Council, today, 30 September 2015. A resolution is to follow in the next few days – determining Sri Lanka’s next steps in its challenging journey towards accountability, reconciliation, and non-recurrence. The OISL’s recommendations provide a roadmap to this destination. The endless wait for justice by victims must end.
For a discussion on the resolution, see following blog post – The Long Journey to Justice for Sri Lanka’s Victims (Part II).