Ending impunity

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Ending impunity

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Meenakshi Ganguly

My visits to Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, during the civil war felt like a trip to a garrison state. There were numerous checkpoints guarded by twitchy young soldiers. And an ever-present fear that at any time a loud explosion would signal yet another suicide bombing by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, seemingly designed to instill terror as much as kill.

The Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers in 2009. Since then, Colombo is transformed with beautifully restored colonial buildings and temples, broad sidewalks crowded with residents and tourists, busy cafes and teeming shops. People talk with relief about an end to the furious conflict, which may have claimed nearly 150,000 lives over three decades.

But allegations of war crimes refuse to go away. The UN estimates that up to 40,000 may have died during final weeks of fighting, when civilians, held hostage by the Tamil Tigers along the northeast coast, succumbed to indiscriminate military shelling and lack of access to humanitarian aid. Thousands of “disappearances” remain unresolved. Sri Lankans talk in whispers about a massive de-mining operation that followed at war’s end - one that possibly also got rid of human remains.

And the skeletons, literally and figuratively, keep tumbling out. In December, laborers at a water project uncovered a mass grave on northern Mannar Island. Cell phone videos keep surfacing showing soldiers seemingly executing prisoners, piling up corpses.

The LTTE had a horrific record of atrocities. The group was responsible for widespread forced recruitment of children, killings of political opponents and random civilians and extortion of ethnic Tamils. The Sri Lankan government believes that the world should celebrate its triumph and ignore the laws-of-war violations by both sides along the way.

The United Nations made no real effort during the fighting to press for accountability. Only after the war ended did Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon get a promise from President Mahinda Rajapaksa to investigate alleged abuses. But with no signs of Sri Lankan government action and damning international documentation piling up, the UN Human Rights Council supported resolutions in 2012 and 2013 calling upon the government to implement the recommendations of its own commission.

The government took some good steps, such as its rehabilitation efforts: several hundred thousand people initially detained in military camps have returned home or resettled where they could. The nearly 12,000 alleged Tamil Tiger soldiers captured have been “rehabilitated” and released. In September, the government held its first provincial elections in the ethnic Tamil-dominated Northern Province.

But the crucial issue of accountability has gone nowhere. A handful of inquiries held in secret only publicize the results - absolving soldiers of wrongdoing. On February 24, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay reported that the Sri Lankan government’s failure to undertake a credible national process to address serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law “can no longer be explained as a function of time or technical capacity, but that it is fundamentally a question of political will.”

Meanwhile, Sri Lankans are discovering new reasons to be concerned. The government, packed with the president’s relatives in senior positions, runs an increasingly authoritarian administration. Journalists speak of self-censorship. Victims of rights abuses and witnesses who demand justice are threatened. Human rights defenders wonder when they might go too far in their criticism - and become targeted by unidentified assailants. A culture of impunity prevails.

Unsurprisingly, there has been increasing criticism of the Rajapaksa government’s rights record. Political parties in India have expressed concern about the failure of justice in Sri Lanka. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, after meeting with Tamil victims last year, joined in the call for an international investigation. The European parliament adopted a similar resolution.

Most importantly, the United States and other countries are preparing a resolution for submission to the UN Human Rights Council, which is meeting in its March session. It should recognize the meager government response to the previous two resolutions and ensure some form of an international investigation.

Sri Lanka has responded to the outcry by dismissing critical foreign governments and local activists as nothing more than LTTE supporters and apologists. Instead of complying with the previous resolutions, the government has dispatched envoys to oppose an investigation. As in previous years, it has publicly named civil society members as supplying “false information” in exchange for financial support, putting those individuals at grave risk.

For nearly five years their government has refused to take serious action. It is clear that UN member countries, including Korea, need to take up the matter for there to be accountability. Korea’s vote will be crucial and it should join in with other concerned governments and back an independent international inquiry, and promote a more rights-respecting Sri Lanka. All Sri Lankans who were victims of the country’s long war deserve justice.

*The author is South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. Twitter handle: mg2411

By Meenakshi Ganguly

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