A major diplomatic rift has emerged between the United States and Sri Lanka over the island nation’s human rights record. The dispute focuses on possible war crimes that occurred during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war against the Liberation Tamil Tigers Elam (“LTTE”) in 2009. Citing Colombo’s lack of progress in addressing the charges, Washington is preparing to sponsor a third UN Human Rights Council (“UNHRC”) resolution in Geneva pressing Sri Lanka to commission a credible investigation into the alleged wartime atrocities. Colombo has denied any wrongdoing and has rejected calls for an international inquiry.
The United States views the establishment of an independent probe as a necessary first step toward bringing accountability, justice, and ultimately reconciliation to the deeply divided nation. Sri Lanka, by contrast, has condemned these efforts as a violation of its sovereignty and as counter productive to its efforts to consolidate peace. The impasse has strained historically strong ties between the United States and Sri Lanka, and poses a formidable challenge to Washington, which must balance the ostensibly competing concerns of promoting the rule of law and international justice abroad, maintaining its relationship with an important strategic ally, and protecting its geopolitical interests in the region.
Beginning in 1983, the LTTE waged a brutal, separatist civil war against Sri Lanka in an effort to establish an independent state for the country’s Tamil minority. Pioneers in the use of suicide bombings, the LTTE terrorized the island nation for more than 25 years, unleashing a brazen and indiscriminate campaign of violence against both Sri Lankan government forces and civilians. The armed conflict came to an end in May 2009 after the Sri Lankan military crushed the Tamil Tigers and killed its ruthless leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. The violent end to the long civil war further fractured a country already deeply divided by religious and ethnic divisions.
Sri Lanka’s triumph over terrorism, however, became quickly marred by allegations that its forces perpetrated war crimes against both the Tamil Tigers and innocent civilians at the end of the conflict. Although Colombo denied the charges, in 2011, a panel of UN-commissioned experts found “credible allegations” of war crimes committed by both sides of the separatist struggle, but held the Sri Lankan military responsible for the majority of the estimated 40,000 civilian deaths that occurred during the final months of the war. The panel recommended that Colombo establish an “accountability mechanism” to investigate the potential violations of international and international humanitarian law. But nearly three years later, many have concluded that Sri Lanka will never do so because such an investigation could potentially implicate senior members of the government, including the Sri Lankan president himself. Since then, calls for an international inquiry into the alleged war crimes have grown predictably louder.
Against this backdrop, tensions between Washington and Colombo are steadily rising as the United States prepares to sponsor the UNHRC resolution. Earlier this month, a senior State Department official traveled to Sri Lanka to convey Washington’s concerns about Colombo’s “insufficient progress in addressing justice, reconciliation and accountability,” and warned that the patience of the international community was “wearing thin” as a result. Sri Lanka quickly dismissed the “reckless and irresponsible statements,” accused Washington of polarizing the country, and reiterated its opposition to any kind of international probe.
Now just days ahead of the meeting in Geneva, the United States finds itself confronting a host of competing legal and foreign policy imperatives. Sponsorship of the UNHRC resolution is consistent with America’s longstanding commitment to human rights and its belief that a durable peace cannot be attained in the absence of genuine accountability and justice. Allowing these war crimes allegations to go unaddressed would undermine important international legal norms while rendering true reconciliation in the country an even more remote prospect.
But Washington’s position has also strained bilateral relations with one of its most important strategic allies in South Asia at a time when the geopolitical landscape of the Indo-Pacific is changing. Situated at the intersection of some of the world’s most important waterways, Sri Lanka has traditionally enjoyed robust, multi-dimensional ties with the United States dating back to its independence in 1948. Recent years, however, have witnessed China’s mounting influence over Colombo. Chinese aid to the country has skyrocketed, and Beijing has played a central role in the country’s post-war reconstruction. There is growing concern within some quarters that the acrimony between Colombo and Washington could accelerate Sri Lanka’s burgeoning relationship with Beijing in a manner adverse to American interests in the region.
Calibrating an approach that balances these varying interests remains the primary challenge for the United States moving forward. The ongoing debate within the U.S. Congress over the scope, manner, and degree to which Washington should continue pressing Colombo over its human rights record reflects the potency of this challenge. It also raises complex questions about the effectiveness of quiet diplomacy when dealing with friends and allies with respect to difficult and sensitive issues such as human rights.
As the UNHRC prepares to reconvene in Geneva, pressure on Sri Lanka is building. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report recently calling for an international inquiry into the alleged war crimes, as well as into a series of other purported human rights violations that occurred during the conflict. While China, Russia, and Australia have expressed their support for the Sri Lankan government by denouncing foreign interference in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, the UK, Canada, and India have signaled their support for Washington’s resolution, illustrating the evolving geopolitical alignments at stake.
Washington should continue to press Colombo to bring justice and reconciliation to Sri Lanka, both of which still remain tragically absent from the island. The few steps taken by Colombo toward this end, such as establishing the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and allowing provincial elections in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province, are the result of pressure brought to bear by the United States and other members of the international community. By urging the country to hold accountable those individuals who perpetrated horrific and illicit crimes on both sides of the conflict, the United States can help Sri Lanka still win the peace five years after it won the war.