Sri Lanka’s new president, Maithripala Sirisena, has promised to break from the Rajapaksa regime’s rule with a 100 day plan of widely welcomed reforms that will ensure good governance, rule of law and judicial independence. However the new government is yet to address the country’s most significant issue in Sri Lanka – that of accountability and justice for wartime mass atrocities in which tens of thousands of Tamils died in the cataclysmic end of the war, and the rights abuses during and after the war.
As the surprise at the sudden collapse of the Rajapaksa regime begins to fade, focus is again on this issue, not least as the landmark UN inquiry launched in March 2014 is to report in two months at the next session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Mr Sirisena made it clear during his election campaign and in his manifesto that he would not allow any Sri Lankan citizen who fought against the LTTE to be handed over to face international justice. Instead, vowing to clean up Sri Lanka’s image on the international stage, Mr Sirisena promised a domestic inquiry into any allegations of war crimes.
However, calls on the new government to reverse the Rajapaksa government’s defiance of international demands and to comply with the UN inquiry began as soon as Mr Sirisena took office. While congratulating the new president on his electoral win, the UK and Canadian governments pointedly called on him to cooperate with the inquiry.
Ahead of the UNHRC meeting and the report of the UN inquiry, Tamil Guardian this week canvassed opinion amongst Tamil campaigners seeking accountability and justice on what the change in Sri Lanka’s leadership might mean.
Hope and Justice
“The new government is currently in a gainful position to win over the victims of war. In view of its pledges, it is also well placed to gain the confidence of the international community, and save the country from international sanctions in relation to very serious allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Mr Varadakumar of a London based research centre, the Tamil Information Centre (TIC) told the Tamil Guardian.
He called for the UN inquiry to continue whilst the new government establishes a victim-centred transitional justice process that has the capacity and will to deliver credible transitional outcome.
He added: “The previous government was unwilling to prevent human rights abuses or carry out independent and credible investigations into violations of human rights and humanitarian law. In fact the government itself was fully and wilfully involved in such violations [and] encouraged impunity and took a wide range of measures to protect the security force perpetrators while offering no protection or compensation to the civilian victims.”
“The new government has announced many welcome measures, but has said nothing about bringing the perpetrators to book. Instead it has announced benefits for the security forces. It refers to them as ‘heroic members of the armed forces’.”
The need for justice amid hope for change was also shared by other Tamil diaspora groups worldwide, including the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC), the Australian Tamil Congress (ATC) and the Global Tamil Forum (GTF).
“While the new Presidency brings about hope for change, only time will tell,” said CTC representative, Raj Thavaratnasingham. “What remains sure however, in the words of his Holiness the Pope, is that ‘the process of healing must also include the pursuit of truth’.”
The ATC said: “We believe true accountability for the violations of international law and international humanitarian law committed by all sides of the conflict, in an internationally acceptable manner, is key to achieve reconciliation and lasting peace in Sri Lanka.”
Noting the “new beginning marked by President Sirisena’s election victory and the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa”, the GTF spokesperson, Suren Surendiran, said the organisation would continue working with the international community to ensure that it included “obtaining long overdue justice for past violations of international law and international humanitarian law.”
“Mr Sirisena’s acknowledgement of the allegations of war crimes and pledge to investigate is a change from the previous regime,” said Mr Surendiran.
“However, at the same time,” he added, “we have to remember that we are talking about very serious crimes here, around the world domestic inquiries examining such serious crimes happen under UN supervision.”
“The Tamil people have already waited a long time for justice, they cannot be expected to wait much longer.”
Tamil students in the UK, many who had protested on the streets in 2009 at the height of the carnage, were less hopeful however, questioning how different the new government would be from the last in its pursuit of justice for Tamils.
“Even students who do not follow Sri Lankan politics religiously recognise the tumultuous change caused by the recent election, but for no reason more than the ousting of Rajapaksa,” said a representative of the Tamil Students Initiative (TSI), a network of UK university Tamil societies, Hari Lingham.
“There has been much talk about increased optimism that the new governing body will improve the Tamils’ chance of finally obtaining justice, however given the history and nature of the Sri Lankan state, we remain pessimistic meaningful change will come,” Mr Lingham said. “It seems as if there is a different president, yet the same outcome.”
The view was emphatically shared by the Tamil Civil Society Forum, a network of Tamil civil society activists in the Tamil homeland.
“Sirisena was part of the Government that waged the war and during the campaign had claimed that he played an important role in the final days of the war [and] key members of his team claim that Rajapaksa fought a clean war,” said the TCSF spokesperson Kumaravadivel Guruparan, adding that amnesties or ‘truth and reconciliation commissions’ would mean “nothing but impunity”.
Indeed the previous regime’s refusal to accept the UN inquiry last March, was strongly endorsed by parties now within the new government, including the United National Party (UNP) led by Sri Lanka’s current prime minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, the JVP, the JHU and the Muslim party, the SLMC.
The new government and its supporters also include those who played a principal role during the Sri Lankan military’s 2009 offensive, such as the former army general, Sarath Fonseka, as well as Mr Sirisena himself, who made a point to assert that he served as acting defence minister for the final two weeks of the armed conflict, when senior LTTE leaders were killed.
The US based political advocacy group, USTPAC, also expressed concern about Mr Sirisena’s wartime role, questioning his ability to therefore credibly oversee a domestic process of accountability.
USTPAC president, Dr Karunyan said, the organisation “recognises the many impediments in the country that make it impossible to conduct a credible domestic investigation into the war crimes and crimes against humanity that occurred and continue in Sri Lanka.”
“President Sirisena’s assertions that he acted as the Minister of Defense during the final two weeks of war, a period in which thousands of Tamils were killed, is one such impediment to entrust his administration to undertake an impartial investigation,” he added, calling on the US government to urge Sri Lanka to cooperate with the UN inquiry.
The Sri Lankan state’s long history of impunity for crimes committed against the Tamil people was highlighted by many Tamil groups, expressing scepticism over any prospect of justice through a domestic inquiry, even under the new government, despite its pledge of good governance and rule of law.
“In the last 35 years, commissions and committees relating to human rights violations have not functioned properly or have not been allowed to function properly and the judiciary has become the puppet of the executive,” Mr Varadakumar of the TIC said.
The Tamil speaking people who have endured enormous suffering as a result are not confident that they would be provided relief without radical measures by the government, he explained.
Also pointing to Sri Lanka’s history of impunity, Mr Shan Sutha of the British Tamils Forum (BTF) said, “a local commission will never deliver justice to the Tamils.”
Listing the anti-Tamil riots and pogroms that had occurred in 1958, 1962, 1977, 1983 and including 2009, he said that “not a single perpetrator has been held to account for these genocidal acts.”
“A local investigation is akin to a murderer investigating his own crime as it is the Sri Lankan state that committed and continues to commit acts of genocide under different leaderships,” Mr Sutha added.
“The BTF will continue to collate and provide witnesses and evidences to the investigators to recognise the crime committed against the Tamil people for what it is; genocide. The perpetrators should be tried in Hague and punished for their crimes.”
His view was shared by the US based advocacy group, PEARL, which also flatly rejected any notion of justice through an internal inquiry.
“PEARL has absolutely no faith or confidence in any domestic accountability process,” said director, Tasha Manoranjan.
“Sri Lanka’s structural impediments for meaningful justice and genuine peace will not go away through a revolving-door process of regime change.”
The Tamil Civil Society Forum said the failure of local commissions was not only due to a problem of capacity, but most importantly the Sri Lankan state – as stated by former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay following a visit to the country – “lacks political will”.
“We believe that there will never be political will for prosecutions as long as Sinhala Buddhist nationalism holds sway in Sri Lanka’s democratic politics,” TCSF’s spokesperson, Mr Guruparan explained.
He added: “The Sri Lankan Army is perceived as the protectors of the Sinhala Buddhist political and social order. Any regime in Colombo will risk alienating their vote base if they are even seen to be advocating for accountability [and] this is why whether it’s Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickremasinghe or Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge – no Sinhalese leader – will call for a rigorous, free and fair domestic inquiry.”
“The only avenue for justice is through international processes that lead to international criminal prosecutions,” Mr Guruparan said, calling for Sri Lanka to be referred to the International Criminal Court, as the “only means of true accountability”.
“The international community shouldn’t delay justice any longer by giving further time to the – new – Sri Lankan government.”
Committing to Justice
The OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL), mandated by the UNHRC member states in a resolution adopted by the Council in March last year, was vehemently rejected by Mr Rajapaksa’s government. Despite numerous calls on Sri Lanka to comply with UNHRC resolutions, UN investigators were denied access to the country, witnesses were intimidated and a travel ban was imposed on foreign passport holders, including international NGO workers and diplomats, travelling to Tamil areas.
Calling on the new president to take genuine steps towards justice, the UK prime minister and Canadian foreign minister have already urged Mr Sirisena, unlike his predecessor, to cooperate with the UN inquiry – a call widely endorsed by Tamils.
“As Prime Minister Cameron said in his message of congratulation to the new president, Mr Sirisena should commit to cooperating with the UNHRC in its inquiry, demonstrating his commitment to pursuing justice,” the GTF’s Mr Surendiran said.
Tamils for Labour, a lobby group canvassing the UK’s opposition party on seeking justice for Tamils, said it supported the statement issued earlier this month by the Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kerry McCarthy, which called on Mr Sirisena to cooperate with the UN inquiry.
“We don’t think it is right to talk about domestic commissions at this moment, we must deal with the existing and current international process,” said the group’s spokesperson, Sen Kandiah, adding it was imperative that the UN inquiry continues and reports as planned at the next session of the UN Human Rights Council in March 2015.
“We believe that President Sirisena can demonstrate his commitment to accountability and justice through his support for this inquiry,” he added.
British Tamil Conservatives, a group which lobbies the UK’s ruling Conservative Party on Tamil issues, also stressed the need for the UN inquiry currently under way to continue.
Stating that the group understood the reasons behind the British government wanting to give the new government an opportunity to comply with the international community’s demands, BTC member Thaksha Ravikulan, stressed however, “our point is this cannot be a fresh start.”
“President Sirisena’s Government should simply take steps to comply with UNCHR’s process that is already set in motion,” she said.
“This we believe will not only show that the new government of Sri Lanka’s wishes to take sincere steps in regards to accountability and its commitment to bringing about peace and reconciliation, but [will] also gain the trust of the minorities in Sri Lanka again,” said Ms Ravikulan.
If President Sirisena’s government does not cooperate with the UNHRC resolutions the British government must then use all available means to ensure that the new government of Sri Lanka abides by the resolution and also set up deadlines for them to do so, she added.
Their views were echoed across the Atlantic, where groups called on the US and Canada to ensure the new Sri Lankan government cooperates with the UN.
“We have been consistently calling for this report since 2009,” CTC’s Mr Thavaratnasingham said, describing the group’s determination over the last five years in pursuing an international investigation.
“With the findings of the investigation’s report to be presented in March 2015, the international pressure must,” he emphasised, “remain”.
USTPAC president, Dr Karunyan said: “It is our expectation that the OISL brings to the fore the systematic genocidal destruction of the Tamil community by the Sri Lankan state. Tamils need to be protected from this destruction. Prosecutions, war reparations, demilitarisation and reversal of land grabs across the North-East, etc will figure prominently in the next stage.
“The OISL process must continue in earnest and the international community and the United States must press Sri Lanka to fully cooperate with the OHCHR led investigation,” he added.
Reiterating the call for Sri Lanka to fully cooperate with the established OISL process, including allowing unimpeded access to UN investigators, PEARL’s Ms Manoranjan said: “Sri Lanka should not be allowed to regress back into its tired tactics of ‘time and space’ which enable further delays of justice.”
“We urge the international community to take steps to halt the genocide,” she said, calling for the urgent full-scale withdrawal of the military from the North-East and the cessation of all colonisation schemes and land grabs across the North-East.
“We also urge the international community to demand Sirisena’s government accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), with retroactive effect, such that crimes committed before, during and after 2009, fall within the ICC’s jurisdiction,” added Ms Manoranjan.
Her call for Sri Lanka to become a signatory of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court 1998 as a genuine step towards ensuring justice for mass atrocities against the Tamil people was echoed by the Tamil Information Centre.
“A radical measure to restore confidence would be for Sri Lanka to consider becoming a signatory to the Rome Statute in the long term” Mr Varadakumar said.
“The scars from the conflict are still raw, and any attempt by the new government to unreasonably bury the past would not be acceptable and viewed as a continuance of the despotic Rajapaksa regime,” he added.
“The new president and his government cannot ignore the accountability and justice issues. They have to deal with them, internally and externally.” (Tamil Guardian)