Will UN report bring justice for Sri Lanka war victims?

By Amantha Perera

IRIN Contributor

Thavarasa Utharai says she isn’t exactly sure where Geneva is, but she is anxiously awaiting a report soon to be made public in the Swiss city that is expected to expose war crimes committed during Sri Lanka’s civil war.

After acceding to the Sri Lankan government’s request to delay the report by six months, the Geneva-based United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is scheduled to finally release the results of its investigation within the next two weeks.

Victims like Utharai hope the report will provide information about family members who disappeared during Sri Lanka’s decades-long war, which pitted government forces against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (or Tamil Tigers). Both sides committed abuses.

Utharai has been trying to discover what happened to her husband since he went missing while herding cattle on 20 March 2009 in Unnichchi, a village about 350 kilometres east of the capital Colombo.

“I have gone to every authority I could,” she told IRIN, mentioning the police Criminal Investigations Department, a presidential commission, government officials and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“I know no more of my husband’s fate than I knew in 2009.”

Instead of information, Utharai said she has faced intimidation. When she enquired with police in 2013, she was told it would be safer for her if she registered her husband as deceased rather than continue to ask for answers about what happened to him.

Utharai’s husband was one of thousands of civilians who disappeared during the 1976-2009 conflict between the Sri Lankan government, which is dominated by members of the ethnic Sinhalese majority, and the Tamil Tigers who rebelled after attacks on the minority Tamil population.

In addition to the UN human rights probe, a separate Sri Lankan presidential commission has been investigating missing persons since 2013 and has so far received 20,000 complaints from people whose relatives disappeared. That number includes civilians as well as combatants on both sides. The ICRC has registered 16,064 cases of people who have gone missing since 1990.

Sri Lanka’s government has been reluctant to delve too deeply into such issues. The UN Human Rights Council voted to investigate alleged war crimes because of the government’s failure to do so. The upcoming report is expected to shed light on atrocities like abductions and attacks against civilians during the last years of the war, including the government’s final assault on the Tamil Tigers in May 2009 when it shelled areas that had been declared no-fire zones and where tens of thousands of civilians had sought refuge.

The political dynamic changed in Sri Lanka in January when former health minister Maithripala Sirisena scored a major upset and defeated two-term incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa after a closely fought presidential election campaign. Sirisena's new government has been seen as more willing to look into the past in order to promote reconciliation between Sinhalese and Tamils.

Citing the new government’s commitment to cooperating on human rights issues, the UN Human Rights Council agreed in February to defer its consideration of the report for six months, after which point it would be made public.

Elections in August further emboldened the government’s ability to pursue accountability, because it gave Sirisena’s party a majority in parliament, effectively nullifying opposition from allies of his more hardline predecessor, Rajapaksa. Sirisena last week extended the mandate of the presidential probe into missing persons, which was due to expire this month, and officials in the presidents’ office said the government plans to go further by setting up a separate body with foreign advisors to investigate war crimes with an aim to prosecute those found guilty.

"The president will now likely move ahead with setting up the new investigative commission since he has a supportive parliament,” said an official on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject.

Some victims and rights advocates say even that measure would not go far enough. They want the perpetrators of war crimes to face charges in an international court.

“How can we place our trust on a national mechanism? Some of us have been looking for answers for decades and there has never been any satisfactory state response,” said Pasthapoddi Eswaran, whose husband was shot dead by unknown persons in 1990. “We want a mechanism that we can trust and that is not biased in any way.”

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