The UN needs to help Sri Lanka come to grips with its 26-year civil war

When the General Assembly of the United Nations meets at the end of September, it will vote on whether or not an independent body should investigate alleged war crimes committed by the government of Sri Lanka during its 26-year civil conflict.

The government of the newly elected president Maithripala Sirisena has insisted that a domestic truth and reconciliation commission—not unlike that instituted in post-apartheid South Africa—will be sufficient; but others disagree.

“It is, I believe, an inescapable reality that Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system is not yet ready to handle these types of crimes,” said Zeid Raad Hussein, the UN’s human rights commissioner, at a news conference in Geneva. “A purely domestic court procedure will simply not succeed in overcoming the widespread and justifiable suspicions fueled by decades of violence, malpractice and broken promises.”

It’s true: Wounds are still fresh in Sri Lanka. The civil war, based in ethnic conflict between the island nation’s mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and largely Hindu Tamil minority, spanned decades and killed thousands. It centered on intermittent insurgency by the secessionist-nationalist movement known as the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE, aka “the Tamil Tigers”), which aimed to establish a sovereign, ethnic-Tamil homeland on the island.

Tensions between the two groups stretch back to the end of British rule in 1948, when Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon. Prior to independence, the British colonial government reportedly favored Tamils (some of whom were brought over from southern India to work the island’s lucrative tea plantations) over the indigenous Sinhalese, stoking resentment among the latter. When the Sinhalese inevitably rose to power in postcolonial Ceylon, they changed the country’s name, made Buddhism the state religion, and instituted Sinhala as the official language. Tamils were actively disenfranchised.

In response to this systemic exclusion, the LTTE was formed in 1976 under the leadership of Velupillai Prabhakaran. The campaign for a Tamil homeland erupted into real violence in 1983, when a band of LTTE insurgents ambushed a Sri Lankan military convoy, killing 13 soldiers and sparking nationwide riots in which more than 2,500 Tamils died.

In subsequent decades, the LTTE grew into a fully fledged terrorist organization, carrying out suicide bombings and forcibly recruiting child soldiers. They effectively occupied and administered a northern eighth of the island, just south of the Jaffna Peninsula, though laid claim to the entirety of the northern, eastern, and western coasts.

Norway attempted to broker a ceasefire agreement between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government in 2002, but talks fell through the following year. A thin truce was brokered following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, however, which killed more than 30,000 Sri Lankans and precipitated a short period of peace.

That peace was shattered in 2005 with the assassination of Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, by an LTTE sniper in Colombo—Sri Lanka’s largest city. Karidgamar, despite being ethnically Tamil himself, was largely responsible for getting the US State Department to recognize the LTTE as a terrorist organization, and this was supposedly the motivation behind the attack. Over the next two years, both Sri Lankan and LTTE forces regularly exchanged fire; though civilians bore the brunt of the violence.

In Jan. 2008, the Sri Lankan government withdrew from the ceasefire agreement, and launched a campaign to eradicate the LTTE from the country entirely. In 2009, it declared the LTTE defunct and the conflict over. “We have liberated the whole country from LTTE terrorism,” said Mahinda Rajapaksa. “Our intention was to save the Tamil people from the cruel grip of the LTTE. We all must now live as equals in this free country.”

To human-rights advocates both in Sri Lanka and abroad, Rajapaksa’s words rang hollow, however. Proclamations of commitment to interethnic equality mean little when your own government also stands accused of gross human-rights violations carried out in the midst of conflict.

According to Amnesty International (pdf), throughout the civil war, “Sri Lankan military artillery repeatedly hit government-designated civilian ‘no fire zones’ and hospitals, killing medical workers and civilians who appeared to be used as human shields by the LTTE.” Sri Lankan army personnel are also alleged to have killed and forcibly disappeared civilians and former LTTE operatives who had surrendered in what became a kind of Dirty War against ethnic Tamils in the early 2000s.

“Tamils suspected of links to the [LTTE] continued to be arrested and detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) instead of ordinary criminal law,” according to Amnesty. “The PTA permits extended administrative detention, and shifts the burden of proof to a detainee alleging torture or other ill-treatment. It also restricts freedoms of expression and association and has been used to detain critics.”

“Sexual violence was reported against both male and female detainees,” Amnesty notes. “Victims reported torture of both adult and juvenile detainees; these included individuals arrested in the context of security operations as well as suspects in ordinary criminal cases.”

In Mar. 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council requested that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) investigate these violations of international law committed by both the LTTE and Sri Lankan government, with special regards to the latter, as impunity for members of the Sri Lankan political and military elite linked to human-rights abuses has persisted despite official promises to ensure accountability.

Amnesty International has called for particular scrutiny into the cases of five students extrajudicially executed in Trincomalee by Sri Lankan security forces in Jan. 2006, the killing of 17 aid workers in Muttur in Aug. 2006, the murder of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge in Jan. 2009, and the disappearances of political activists Lalith Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganandan in Jaffna in 2011.

Incidents such as these have demonstrated the need for an independent, impartial investigation. And it’s worth noting that despite an apparent commitment to reform, Sirisena’s government is overlooking continued human-rights abuses carried out by official actors against the Tamil minority. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which allows authorities to summarily detain suspects at their discretion, has yet to be repealed, and is reportedly still in use. And its penal code has yet to recognize the crime of enforced disappearance.

According to the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), there is “ongoing militarization” in Sri Lanka’s heavily Tamil northern and eastern provinces, with security forces committing “abuses and violations of minority rights, in spite of some positive steps under the current government of president Maithripala Sirisena.” What’s more, effective May 2015, major general Jagath Dias, who has been implicated in gross abuses during the civil war when he led the army’s 57th division, has been appointed Sirisena’s army chief of staff, one of the armed forces’ highest post.

Is this reform? Or simply the status quo wrapped up in pretty paper and tied with a bow? Only an impartial UN investigation can tell.

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