This week, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva will vote on a resolution about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. If passed, the resolution could begin a process which could ultimately hold the perpetrators of war crimes on both sides accountable. But ultimately, the Sri Lankan government has proved its own worst enemy.
In the five years since the bloody war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended, the government has shown no desire to investigate mass atrocities by both sides.
According to the UN, 40,000 people, many of whom were civilians, were killed in the final stages of the conflict in 2009. Despite the government’s unwillingness to allow proper scrutiny, evidence of these abuses has gradually surfaced.
Last week, a new report on Sri Lanka’s treatment of Tamils after the end of the 2009 war by a group of investigators led by South African human rights lawyer Yasmin Sooka, revealed chilling details of sexual violence and other forms of torture. It shows in stark detail how abductions by the Sri Lankan Central Investigation Department, the Terrorist Investigation Division, and the police, continued to be conducted through the use of ‘white vans’, a symbol long associated with state terror. Notably, the report demonstrates that among the places where sexual violence and torture took place were government-run rehabilitation camps funded and supported by the international community.
The draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, which for decades was the Sri Lankan government’s instrument to stifle dissent and arrest those perceived to be linked to the LTTE, is still in operation. On 19 March, this was applied once again when the police took into custody one of the country’s most prominent human rights defender, Ruki Fernando, and Father Praveen Mahesan, a priest. Fernando is accused of ‘embarrassing the government’ and of ‘attempting to revive the LTTE’.
These recent arrests fit into a well-oiled pattern of suppressing opposition perfected by the Rajapakse regime: anyone who works with international organizations to investigate abuses or raises their voice against ongoing abuses inside the country is branded a ‘traitor’. The government has effectively quashed judicial independence after its controversial impeachment of the country’s chief justice in January 2013.
Since the end of the conflict, the international community has been urging the government to reduce military presence in the north and make genuine efforts to reconcile with the minority Tamil community. In response, the government has replaced the military with plainclothes police who keep the local population in check and clamp down on any perceived dissent with arrests. Impunity for ongoing violence has become the norm for the current government. This has emboldened radical Buddhist groups like the nationalist Bodu Bala Sena, (the Buddhist Power Force) and Sinhala Ravaya (the Roar of the Sinhala People) to continue regular and systematic attacks on Muslims and Christians. That nobody is arrested or held to account for these attacks only supports the view that the violence is state-sanctioned.
The international inquiry currently proposed at the Human Rights Council in Geneva will not resolve all of Sri Lanka’s problems. The crisis to its democracy runs deep and is institutionalized. But cohesive action at the international level could challenge Sri Lanka’s institutionalized impunity and provide the first, much needed step towards reconciliation with the Tamil community. It would also to some degree repair the credibility of the UN and its mechanisms, which have so far failed to uphold the human rights of the Sri Lankan people. UN member states should think hard about this before they cast their vote.
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