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Sri Lanka: New Transitional Justice Process Lacks Credibility

UN Human Rights Council Engagement Remains Vital to Ensure Justice for Atrocity Crimes

Thagbsiwaran Sivaganawathy holds a photo of her daughter, Thageswaran Susanya, at a protest for relatives of the disappeared on May 13, 2019 in Mullaitivu, Sri Lanka. © 2019 Allison Joyce/Getty Images

(Geneva) – The Sri Lankan government’s proposed law to create another body to investigate wartime abuses replicates previous failed efforts, ignores the needs of victims, and falls far short of meeting Sri Lanka’s international legal obligations, Human Rights Watch said today. Sri Lankan authorities continue to silence and repress families of victims and their communities 15 years after the armed conflict ended.

The Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka Bill was published on January 1, 2024, following limited consultations in 2023 and government pledges to investigate human rights violations and war crimes committed during the 1983-2009 civil war with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and in its aftermath. It excludes widespread abuses committed during the left-wing Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) uprising of 1988-1990. Instead of providing truth, justice and redress, the proposed law appears designed to deflect international pressure over the lack of accountability for atrocity crimes and to persuade the United Nations Human Rights Council to end its scrutiny of Sri Lanka.

“A credible truth and justice process is desperately needed in Sri Lanka, where wartime abuses resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and enforced disappearances,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “However, the government’s continuing repression of victim communities and its protection of alleged perpetrators shows a lack of will to deliver justice, ensuring that this commission will fare no better than previous ones.”

The bill states that the new commission would produce a “truthful record” of violations committed during the war, make recommendations on reparations, and propose measures to prevent a recurrence. While the commission would also be able “to refer matters to the relevant law enforcement or prosecuting authorities … for further investigation and necessary action,” those authorities are already supposed to take up such cases, but routinely fail to do so. Successive Sri Lankan governments have blocked investigations, stalled trials, and silenced victims, in violation of international legal obligations to prosecute or extradite people responsible for serious crimes.

Since the 1990s, the government has created at least 10 similar commissions, at leave five of which have concluded reports. Many victims say they have “commission fatigue” and see no use in testifying again, risking re-traumatization and possible threats from the security forces with no expectation of justice and redress.

In 2023, after the government announced its plans to establish a new commission, numerous organizations representing conflict victims and civil society groups—especially in the most conflict-affected Northern and Eastern provinces—joined four separate joint statements rejecting the government’s approach and instead said it should act upon the work of previous commissions, while “building confidence” by ending ongoing abuses.

The current government, like its predecessors, has a record of making human rights pledges to deflect international pressure while continuing abuses and blocking meaningful reform and accountability. Many victims see the proposed commission as an attempt to persuade UN Human Rights Council member countries to end the council’s scrutiny, a view supported by statements from President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office.

The proposed commission resembles the 2010-2011 Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. After this commission failed to achieve its stated objectives, the Human Rights Council in 2015 passed the first of a series of important resolutions to advance accountability for atrocity crimes committed in Sri Lanka.

From 2015 to 2020, when Wickremesinghe was prime minister, the Human Rights Council adopted resolutions with the endorsement of Sri Lanka that envisaged a “hybrid” justice mechanism including both foreign and Sri Lankan staff. In 2021, after a new Sri Lankan government repudiated this process, the council established an international evidence-gathering project to support possible future prosecutions abroad.

Meanwhile, the current government has continued to repress fundamental rights. In January 2024, the government presented two bills in parliament that threaten the right to freedom of expression. According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Anti-Terrorism Bill, to replace a law that has long been used to target minorities and perceived government opponents, “grants wide powers to the police – and to the military – to stop, question and search, and to arrest and detain people, with inadequate judicial oversight.”

The Online Safety Bill, adopted by parliament on January 24, “will give authorities unfettered discretion to label and restrict expressions they disagree with as ‘false statements,’” the high commissioner’s office said. New speech-related offenses carry lengthy prison terms.

The government has also continued to target those campaigning for truth and accountability. On January 5, the authorities arrested and detained Sivananthan Jenita and Meera Jasmine Charlesnise, who have campaigned for years seeking answers after the enforced disappearance of their relatives for protesting against President Wickremesinghe during his visit to the north. In December, nine ethnic Tamils were held under anti-terrorism legislation for commemorating war dead.

Government agencies continue to appropriate Hindu and Muslim religious sites and lands occupied by Tamil and Muslim communities on a variety of pretexts, in some cases to convert the sites into Buddhist temples or transfer them to members of the majority community. These actions violate the right to freedom of religion or belief and are in direct opposition to the government’s purported goals of promoting “reconciliation” and addressing the causes of conflict, Human Rights Watch said.

The new commission’s proposed mandate would overlap in ill-defined ways with existing but nonperforming agencies, including the Office of Reparations, established in 2018, and the Office of Missing Persons, established in 2017. On January 9, Sri Lanka’s parliament passed legislation to formalize yet another institution with an ostensibly similar purpose, the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation, which was created in 2015.

Concerned governments should decline to fund or endorse the new Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation, because it would not uphold Sri Lanka’s international obligations to address impunity or provide redress and does not have the support of victims and affected communities. Instead, they should work to ensure that the Human Rights Council mandate is renewed and enhanced to pursue accountability for past crimes and help end ongoing abuses.

“The actions of President Wickremesinghe’s government to silence dissent, protect and promote alleged rights abusers, and discriminate against minority communities give no grounds to believe that the latest ‘reconciliation’ plan will turn out differently from past commissions,” Ganguly said. “The government should start dealing with the past in good faith, by using the evidence already collected to advance accountability and stop persecuting victims and their families who demand justice.”

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