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Elaine Pearson meets with mothers protesting the enforced disappearance of their sons, Vavuniya, Sri Lanka, 2017. © Human Rights Watch

When I visited Sri Lanka in 2017, I met with mothers of the missing holding a roadside vigil in the northern town of Vavuniya. They clung to worn photos of their sons and told me how their children were taken into custody when the military was rounding up suspected members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Their sons were never heard from again. For more than a decade, the mothers have been demanding answers.

The Sri Lankan government’s abuses during its civil war more than a decade ago may seem like a distant memory, but for the families of the victims they remain a continuing source of pain. The return of the Rajapaksas, who oversaw the wartime abuses, to power has resulted in an alarming deterioration of the human rights situation that deserves Australia’s attention. At the current session of the United Nations Human Rights Council this month, Australia has an opportunity to step up and support a resolution that would bring Sri Lanka closer to accountability for abuses.

In a hard-hitting new report, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, says that “Sri Lanka remains in a state of denial about the past,” and the “current trajectory sets the scene for the recurrence of the policies and practices that gave rise to grave human rights violations.” In particular, the commissioner points to worrying trends of “deepening impunity, increasing militarization of governmental functions, ethno-nationalist rhetoric, and intimidation of civil society.” Bachelet called for member states to take urgent action.

The current Sri Lankan president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was the defence secretary in the government led by his brother Mahinda from 2005 to 2015, a period marked by particularly egregious abuses. Critics of the government were murdered, tortured, and forcibly disappeared. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the civil war between government forces and the separatist LTTE, which ended in 2009, with both sides committing numerous war crimes. In the final months of the war, the armed forces indiscriminately shelled civilians and summarily executed suspected LTTE fighters.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the 2015 presidential election there seemed to be an opening for change. With the support of the new government, the Human Rights Council passed a landmark consensus resolution that year. It offered victims of all communities in Sri Lanka the hope of truth, justice, and reconciliation, and upheld the principle of accountability for the most serious international crimes. The shadow of fear and repression was lifted.

Now fear has returned. In November 2019 Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president and he appointed Mahinda as prime minister. In a recent speech to celebrate his first year in office, the president reassured his supporters that the “era of betraying war heroes… [has] now come to an end.”

The UN is warning of renewed rights violations. Police and intelligence officers have sought to instill fear in journalists and human rights defenders, as well as victims of past abuses and their families, as documented by the UN secretary-general in his annual report on reprisals.

Last February, the new government renounced its commitments under the 2015 Human Rights Council resolution. President Rajapaksa has appointed a number of people to senior positions who were implicated in war crimes, including his chief of defence staff, Gen. Shavendra Silva, whom the United States banned from visiting  because of “his involvement, through command responsibility, in gross violations of human rights, namely extrajudicial killings.”

In October, the government-dominated parliament amended the Constitution to remove the remaining constraints on political interference in Sri Lanka’s courts. The few officials who sought to pursue justice for war crimes are now at risk.

The administration has been clear that it intends to block efforts to help minority Tamils to address the past. In January, the authorities bulldozed a memorial at Jaffna University that commemorated Tamil civilian victims of the civil war. People who participated in a protest march in February are now facing criminal investigation.

Instead of reconciliation and justice, the government is promoting extremist Sinhala Buddhist nationalism that discriminates against minority groups. The security forces are increasingly harassing and threatening Tamil and Muslim communities. In the face of an alarming rise in discrimination against Muslims, the government banned the burial of people who died with Covid-19, which denied Muslims their religious rights without medical justification. The ban was finally overturned on February 26 after months of protests and international pressure.

At its current session, the Human Rights Council faces a crucial decision: whether to allow the Sri Lankan government to continue down this path, or take action to protect vulnerable Sri Lankans and uphold international law. The UN high commissioner has asked the council to support a dedicated UN capacity to collect, preserve and analyze evidence of grave violations in Sri Lanka for use in future prosecutions. She also called upon member states to impose targeted sanctions on those responsible for grave violations. Australia should support those calls.

The United States and India have both made their deep concern for the situation clear. Australia should join with those co-sponsoring a strong resolution that addresses Sri Lanka’s lack of accountability for human rights violations – and the victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparations.

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