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Thousands March for Justice in Sri Lanka, Despite Ban

Protesters Call for UN Action on Accountability

Police try to stop supporters of Sri Lanka's Tamil National Alliance marching in Addalaichenai, Sri Lanka, February 3, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Achala Upendra

In Sri Lanka, families like those of Mariyasuresh Easwary, whose husband was forcibly disappeared by the authorities, have been waiting a long time for answers—and for justice.

"We have approached the courts, we did not get justice there. We approached commissions of inquiry, we did not get our justice there either," she told reporters.

Now, many families of Sri Lanka’s “disappeared” are joining others to call upon the United Nations Human Rights Council to support international accountability efforts for grave violations committed during the 26-year civil war that ended in 2009.  "We need the international community and the United Nations to deliver justice for us,” she said.

Sri Lankan officials immediately tried to muzzle victims’ groups, issuing numerous court orders against a five-day protest march around the country’s independence-day celebrations on February 4.  For example, the Kalavanjikudi Magistrates Court on February 1 issued an order to “prohibit protests planned in support of the accusation of human rights violations at the Geneva sessions.”

A sinister threat followed with the public security minister warning that the protesters would be arrested. “Now we have their photographs and we have their vehicle numbers, we know who these individuals are,” the minister said in a television interview.

Thousands of Tamil civilians were killed in the final months of fighting between the Sri Lankan government and separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, when both sides were responsible for numerous atrocities. With Sri Lanka having failed to uphold commitments to prosecute alleged perpetrators, the Human Rights Council later this month is expected to consider measures to promote international accountability.

Instead of addressing concerns, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government has denounced international efforts for justice, adopted discriminatory measures against Tamils, and harassed victims’ groups. For a second year, the singing of the national anthem in Tamil, an official language, was dropped from the government’s independence-day parade. In January, authorities demolished a memorial to Tamil civilians killed during the war.

UN human rights commissioner Michelle Bachelet has warned that the government’s policies of protecting alleged perpetrators while persecuting minority groups are a “warning sign” of future violations.

Human Rights Council members should now pay heed to the victims and their families who are trusting them to pass a strong resolution to advance accountability and deter the government from committing further abuses.

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