Increased prospects for Transitional Justice after the political transition in Sri Lanka?

Since the end of the Sri Lankan armed conflict in which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were destroyed by the Sri Lankan armed forces in 2009, Sri Lanka was the archetype of a hard case for Transitional Justice. The Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa adopted a completely intransigent posture by failing to credibly investigate the past. Instead, it set up flawed mechanisms resembling truth commissions in an attempt to ease international pressure on accountability. Unsurprisingly, these commissions largely exonerated the government of any systematic wrongdoing. In addition, the government brutally suppressed dissent, presided over the persecution of the Tamil and Muslim minorities and attacked local human rights activists who cooperated with UN mechanisms.

In this context, human rights campaigners within the country turned to the international community. In 2010, the UN Secretary General mandated a Panel of Experts (POE) to advise him on accountability in Sri Lanka. The Panel looked into allegations of international law levelled against both sides during the final phases of the armed conflict and found credible allegations of a wide range of violations of human rights and humanitarian law by both sides, some of which amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Amid growing calls for further international action, the UN Human Rights Council took the significant step in Mach 2014 of mandating an OHCHR investigation into these violations. Despite these developments, prospects for international justice for human rights abuses and related crimes that took place during the war remained slim. Indeed, China and Russia’s strong support for the Rajapaksa regime appeared to preclude the prospect of a referral by the UN Security Council to the Prosecutor of the ICC. Even at the UN Human Rights Council which mandated the ongoing investigation, there was only limited support for decisive international action on Sri Lanka.

On January 8, against all odds, the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was unseated by his former Minister of Health Maithipala Sirisena, who managed to rally a wide array of political parties around the defense of rule of law, transparency and democratic values. However, no consensus on post-war justice was found within this broad ad hoc alliance. While there is enthusiastic support for robust international action on accountability within the minority Tamil community which bore the brunt of the war, representatives of the majority Sinhalese community—about 80 percent of the country’s population—are mostly opposed to international trials. This explains why Sirisena—who needed a substantial if not majority share of the Sinhalese vote to secure victory at the presidential elections—vowed to protect all citizens from international tribunals. Nevertheless, during the campaign, the Sirisena camp indicated that issues of accountability for alleged war crimes will be dealt with domestically and hinted vaguely at the need for truth commissions, apologies and forgiveness.

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