Sri Lanka war crimes in the spotlight as UN rights chief visits

By Jared Ferrie
Asia Editor

Sri Lanka's president is unlikely to cave in any time soon to pressure for international participation in a war crimes tribunal, as the United Nations rights chief urged today. But he could turn the situation to his advantage by offering up less controversial reforms to win back domestic political support and satisfy the international community.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein spoke at the end of a four-day visit to Sri Lanka, where he travelled to check on the government’s progress on implementing recommendations in his report released last September. The report documented alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by both the government and the rebel Tamil Tigers in the last two years of a decades-long war that ended in 2009.

See: Will UN report bring justice for Sri Lanka’s war victims?

It recommended a series of reforms intended to breathe life into Sri Lanka’s ailing justice sector, including the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission and an office dedicated to investigating the fate of thousands of people who disappeared during the war.

More controversially, it also called for the creation of a hybrid court comprised of Sri Lankan and international officials – a suggestion that was dismissed by hardliners as well as reform-minded president Maithripala Sirisena.

Zeid stuck firmly to that position in his statement today.

“Sri Lanka has many excellent judges, lawyers, and law enforcement officials,” he said. “But over the years the system they depended on, and which depends on them, became highly politicised, unbalanced, unreliable.”

Justice denied

Many Sri Lankans agree. In fact, justice sector reform was one of Sirisena’s key campaign promises.

Since he came to power in a surprise win a year ago, many in the country have lost confidence in Sirisena’s commitments to investigating abuses during the war and to promoting reconciliation between the mainly Buddhist majority ethnic Sinhalese and minority ethnic Tamils, who are mostly Hindu.

See: Sri Lanka’s torture machine continues in peacetime

Sirisena’s government is accused of making little progress on cases of corruption and abuse allegedly committed by members of the former government, which was led by the hawkish Rajapaksa brothers – Mahinda, the former president, and Gotabhaya, the former defence minister – who oversaw the brutal end of the war.

“There is a sense that the sheen is off the government, the sense that people are beginning to lose some trust in this process,” said Alan Keenan, a Sri Lanka analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Acting on some of the other recommendations in the report could be a way for Sirisena to burnish his fading reputation, Keenan told IRIN. He said the overarching goal of implementing such measures is to help “rebuild the integrity of the justice system”.

That goal appeals to Sri Lankans from various ethnic and religious groups who in the 2015 elections abandoned the Rajapaksa brothers in droves. Those included minority Muslims who were targeted in a series of attacks in 2014 by mobs stirred up by Buddhist nationalist groups. At best, the government did little to protect Muslims, and some rights groups claim it provided tacit support to the nationalists.

“All communities have suffered and they all have an interest in rebuilding the system,” said Keenan.

Economic benefits

In addition to shoring up domestic political support, enacting reforms contained in the UN report would bring economic benefits. The European Union is currently reviewing Sri Lanka’s progress on human rights with an eye to restoring access to the Generalised Scheme of Preferences, which allows imports from developing countries at preferential rates. Sri Lanka lost its privileges in 2010.

Likewise, Sri Lanka is keen to have the United States return access to funding from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which provides grants of as much as $500 million over five years to selected countries.

Progress on implementing the less controversial recommendations could provide political and economic returns, as well as give Sirisena some breathing space by delaying the tougher decision about whether to allow internationals to participate in a tribunal. But Sirisena can’t dodge the question forever. Eventually, Sri Lanka will need to make a decision, and it’s bound to alienate one side or the other.

Supporters of the military and the Rajapaksas are vehemently opposed. They demonstrated in the streets during Zeid’s visit to make it clear that they will not accept foreigners judging military men. But many victims of wartime atrocities will accept nothing less.

“An internationalised, hybrid justice process is absolutely vital if it is to gain the confidence of the torture survivors we treat and for the Tamil community as a whole,” said Sonya Sceats, director of policy and advocacy at Freedom from Torture, a group that works with torture survivors.

“They will have no confidence in the process if there is no international participation,” she told IRIN.