By Michael Hart
More than eight years after government forces crushed the northern Tamil Tiger separatists in the bloody final battle of Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war, victims of alleged human rights abuses committed by both sides still await a semblance of justice. On a visit to the island nation last month, the UN’s special rapporteur for transitional justice, Pablo De Greiff, lamented the government’s failure to establish a hybrid court to try those accused of committing war crimes. De Greiff warned Sri Lanka over its slow progress, stating the delay in investigating alleged abuses “raises many questions about the determination of the government to undertake a comprehensive transitional justice program.”
The worst of the alleged abuses took place during the last few weeks of the conflict in May 2009, when government troops cornered the remaining rebels in a thin slice of territory along Sri Lanka’s northeast coastline. The UN and human rights groups have accused the government of extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances, and indiscriminately shelling in civilian ‘no-fire zones.’ Meanwhile, the Tamil Tigers have been accused of launching suicide bombings, recruiting child soldiers, and using civilians as human shields during the final battle.
It is estimated that in the dying months of the conflict, anywhere between 7,000 and 40,000 civilians were killed. In addition, tens of thousands of Sri Lankans – mostly from the Tamil ethnic minority – have disappeared without trace. With progress toward establishing a war crimes tribunal stalled almost a decade after the bloodshed ended, this article reflects on Sri Lanka’s post-war politics and looks at the political controversy surrounding efforts to put war criminals on trial.
The conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers – formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – began in 1983, after rebels fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the northeast killed 13 soldiers in an ambush. Ethnic tensions had long been simmering between the Hindu Tamil minority and the Buddhist Sinhalese majority since Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948. The LTTE initially carried out a guerrilla campaign consisting of suicide bomb attacks and ambushes targeting security personnel, before a full-scale civil war erupted in the mid-1990s. The two sides eventually signed a ceasefire mediated by Norway in 2002, before violence once again flared in the mid-2000s as the LTTE regained swathes of territory in its strongholds.
After the election of authoritarian president Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, the military took the fight to the rebels with renewed vigor. In January 2008, the government formally withdrew from the ceasefire and launched an all-out offensive designed to bring an end to the conflict. Over the next eighteen months, government forces re-took most rebel-held territory in the northeast, including the strategically-important town of Kilinochchi, which had served as the LTTE’s headquarters for more than a decade. On 19 May 2009, President Rajapaksa declared the country ‘‘liberated’’ from terrorism, as the remnants of the LTTE laid down their arms after their long-time leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed in a shoot-out with government troops.
The final weeks of the conflict were among its most bloody. More than 80,000 fleeing civilians became trapped in a small pocket of territory between rapidly advancing soldiers and retreating LTTE rebels. War crimes were allegedly committed by both sides. International human rights groups accused government forces of shelling civilians in areas which had been demarcated as ‘safe zones,’ as well as carrying-out extra-judicial killings of captured Tamil fighters. The LTTE were accused of forcibly recruiting children in an attempt to bolster its rapidly-dwindling ranks, as well as launching suicide attacks in civilian areas and using fleeing civilians as human shields, even reportedly firing in front of crowds to prevent trapped people from leaving the combat zone. Media outlets – notably Channel 4 in the UK – obtained video footage purporting to show the aftermath of hospitals being shelled, as well as unarmed Tamil fighters being blindfolded and executed by government troops at point-blank range. The footage prompted international outcry and condemnation.
The Sri Lankan government at the time – led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa – denied all allegations of abuse, labelling the unverified video footage as ‘‘fabricated’’ and an outside attempt to destabilize the country. Rajapaksa’s administration rejected all calls for an international inquiry, despite calls by the UN for Sri Lanka to set-up a hybrid court with the involvement of foreign judges.
Hopes for a formal investigation into war crimes were raised in January 2015 following the surprise election victory of Maithripala Sirisena. President Sirisena was elected on a reform ticket pledging to curb the powers of the presidency, fight corruption and protect freedom of speech, marking a clear break from the increasingly-authoritarian strongman-type regime led by Rajapaksa.
Under Sirisena, a degree of progress has indeed been made. The government has initiated public consultations on issues related to the conflict, and last year set up an ‘Office for Missing Persons’ to trace more than 20,000 people who disappeared during the conflict and its aftermath. Among the missing are activists, journalists, and critics of the government along with thousands of former LTTE rebels, family members, and Tamil rights campaigners. The government has now acknowledged the problem and announced that family members of missing persons will be issued with certificates, but as yet little progress has been made in finding out the truth of what happened to the disappeared.
Some observers contend that many of the missing Tamils have been abducted by military and intelligence officers, and have either been killed or may still be being held in state-run detention centers. Some evidence has emerged to support this theory, with campaign groups such as Freedom from Torture and the International Truth and Justice Project presenting harrowing witness accounts and first-hand testimonies detailing detention and torture in military camps. Whilst these accounts are unverified, they have been supported by a number of legal and medical experts.
In the year after his election victory, President Sirisena spoke at the UN General Assembly of the importance of confronting his country’s past, pledging to “follow a process of truth-seeking, justice, reparation, and non-recurrence.” He appeared to back up these words in September 2015 by tentatively agreeing to the terms of a UN Security Council resolution to establish a hybrid court – made up of both Sri Lankan and international judges – which would put on trial those suspected of committing war crimes during the Tamil conflict. The move was praised by most member states.
Yet progress in establishing the tribunal has been slow, and Sirisena appears to have backtracked on some of his early promises. A reconciliation consultation committee appointed by Sri Lanka’s government recommended earlier this year that “international participation in the court be phased-out” once the “required expertise and capacity has been built-up” among locally-appointed judges. The tribunal has still not come to fruition, and Sri Lanka received a two-year extension in March this year to fulfill its commitment to the UN resolution, further delaying the process.
Last month, the UN’s special rapporteur for transitional justice, Pablo De Greiff, warned the government in Colombo that further delays in making good on the promise to establish a war crimes tribunal involve significant risks. After a two-week visit to Sri Lanka, he said “no-one should be under the impression that waiting is a costless alternative,” adding that “failure to achieve progress in fully addressing issues [related to the civil war] constitutes a denial of justice.”
The longer it takes to establish the truth and secure justice for what happened in the final weeks of the conflict back in May 2009, the more likely it is that the frustration of victims and tensions between Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Sinhalese communities will rise. Many Tamils still hold grievances and resent their perceived repression at the hands of the state – particularly at the hands of the military – who retain a dominant presence in the northeast of the country. These suspicions will surely continue to fester for as long as relatives of the deceased and the disappeared sense a continued lack of accountability for abuses committed by state actors during the war, and an absence of justice for its thousands of civilian victims.
President Sirisena’s government has undoubtedly made progress through the introduction of limited reforms, yet accusations of human rights abuses and impunity for state actors continue to be made. It is time for the tougher and more controversial issues related to the final stages of conflict to be tackled – including confronting allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes on both sides – if reconciliation is to be achieved and Sri Lanka is to finally move on from a dark chapter in its history.
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