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Sri Lanka: Political Crisis Threatens Justice Efforts

More Delays for Civil War Victims Seeking Truth, Accountability

Supporters of ousted Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe celebrate outside the Supreme Court complex in Colombo after the court unanimously ruled that President Maithripala Sirisena's order to dissolve Parliament was unconstitutional, December 13, 2018.  © 2018 AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

(New York) – Sri Lanka’s political upheaval undermined stalled processes aimed at providing truth and justice for abuses from the country’s civil war, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2019. The crisis subsided after the Supreme Court ruled on December 13 that the president’s dissolving of parliament was unconstitutional, and Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down as proclaimed prime minister.

“The many victims of Sri Lanka’s three-decade long civil war have seen their diminishing hopes for justice further delayed by presidential politics,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This tragedy highlights the failure of the Sirisena government to take swift, meaningful steps toward accountability.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

The administration of Rajapaksa was implicated in egregious violations during the final months of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war in 2009, and in suppression of freedoms of the media, expression, and association. After Maithripala Sirisena won the election in 2015, the government improved the climate for civil society, reversed some repressive measures, and supported a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council that promoted four transitional justice mechanisms for truth and accountability.

Of these four, only the Office of Missing Persons has been formed, but it has yet to become fully functional. Families in the north and east have held protests and vigils to demand the return of their land from military occupation and to seek the truth about disappeared family members. The political turmoil over the country’s leadership and the possible return of a Rajapaksa administration raised fears not only of further delays in justice, but of retribution against those pressing for government action. The Supreme Court ruling and Rajapaksa’s concession ended the turmoil.

Long-promised security sector reforms are also stalled. Although the government proposed a new counterterrorism law to repeal the draconian and long-abused Prevention of Terrorism Act, the bill did not meet international human rights standards.

One important advance for justice was the indictment, in November, of the chief of defense staff, Adm. Ravindra Wijegunaratne, for protecting a navy officer accused of abducting and killing 11 ethnic Tamil civilians during the civil war.

“Sri Lanka’s past pledges to provide justice to conflict victims and to initiate reforms have fallen by the wayside amid political turmoil,” Ganguly said. “Sri Lanka’s friends need to press the government to meet its commitments to people who have suffered for so long.”

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