During his presidential campaign and after his election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa left little doubt that Sri Lanka would not enforce its commitments on justice and accountability agreed to at the United Nations Human Rights Council. So the foreign minister’s announcement in Geneva last week that Sri Lanka was withdrawing from the 2015 resolution that addressed crimes by all sides during the 26-year civil war was no surprise.
After all, many leading figures in the new administration – including President Rajapaksa, who was defense secretary when the war ended in 2009 – have been implicated in alleged war crimes.
So it was particularly disappointing that the UN Core Group on Sri Lanka – including the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, and Montenegro – did not stand by the numerous victims of abuses by calling for renewed Human Rights Council action. In its statement, the Core Group merely “encourage[d] the government of Sri Lanka to continue cooperation and dialogue” – a naïve appeal in the face of the Sri Lankan government’s explicit repudiation of its commitments.
Successive UN reports have documented countless laws-of-war violations by both government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But since taking office, Rajapaksa has repeatedly made clear his government was not going to punish members of the security forces accused of war crimes, and has already stalled pending investigations. At the same time, the government is rapidly putting civilian state agencies under military control, and intelligence agencies are increasing their surveillance and intimidation of victims’ families, human rights activists, and journalists. The government told the council it would create yet another domestic commission of inquiry, but there is a long record of such bodies failing in Sri Lanka.
International involvement is crucial for any accountability process in Sri Lanka to have credibility and obtain a measure of justice for the victims. But under the current administration, victims have no realistic options beyond the Human Rights Council. Instead of placing faith in empty government promises, the Core Group should be leading the call for the council to create an international justice mechanism.