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Sri Lanka faces renewed pressure over war crime accountability

Ahead of UN human rights session, high commissioner demands targeted sanctions

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, center, sings the national anthem during Independence Day celebrations in Colombo on Feb. 4. Rajapaksa's government is under pressure ahead of a U.N. Human Rights Council session over issues of accountability for alleged war crimes toward the end of the country's quarter-century long armed conflict in 2009.

COLOMBO -- The Sri Lankan government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been placed in the hot seat ahead of a U.N. Human Rights Council session beginning later this month amid a failure to ensure accountability for alleged war crimes toward the end of the country's quarter-century long armed conflict.

In a stinging report released on Jan. 27, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called on the 47 member states of the U.N. Human Rights Council to impose targeted sanctions against top military officials for human rights violations and crimes against humanity after the South Asian island nation failed to ensure justice for thousands killed during the war that ended in 2009.

Bachelet also made an unprecedented call on member states by recommending that they "refer" Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court. The U.N. estimates that at least 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed during the final stage of the war in 2009 between government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels who were fighting for a separate state. Tamils currently amount to over 11% of the population.

"Nearly 12 years on from the end of the war, domestic initiatives for accountability and reconciliation have repeatedly failed to produce results, more deeply entrenching impunity, and exacerbating victims' distrust in the system," she said. "Sri Lanka remains in a state of denial about the past."

The human rights chief's report is being seen as a huge blow to the Rajapaksa government, which rode to power on the votes of the country's majority Buddhists, who overwhelmingly come from the country's dominant Sinhalese ethnic group. Sri Lanka's two main minorities, Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, and Muslims, have come under increasing discrimination after the president took office in 2019.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet speaks during a news conference at the European headquarters of the U.N. in Geneva on Dec. 9, 2020.   © Reuters

Bachelet, a former Chilean president, urged member states to explore possible targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans against credibly alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations. The report explicitly mentioned the names of incumbent Army Commander Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva and current Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Kamal Gunaratne, a retired major general. Both commanded divisions alleged to have violated international human rights and humanitarian law during the armed conflict. The U.S. has already imposed a travel ban against Silva and his family.

The Sri Lankan government angrily rejected Bachelet's report. Co-Cabinet spokesman Udaya Gammanpila told Nikkei Asia that it is beyond her mandate.

"We are rejecting it for two reasons," Gammanpila said. "Firstly, the high commissioner's mandate was to investigate the progress in relation to implementation of resolution 30/1 and 40/1 of the U.N. Human Rights Council." He added that Bachelet actually dedicated just two pages to that in the report, which runs 16 pages. "Secondly, the allegations in the report are unsubstantial," Gammanpila said.

A police officer excavates a human skull from a construction site at a former war zone in Mannar, about 327 km from Colombo, on Jan. 16, 2014.    © Reuters

Sri Lanka's leading Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance -- which has taken a vociferous stand against minority discrimination by the government and its increasing militarization through new appointments of active duty or former military and intelligence personnel to key administrative posts and several presidential task forces -- welcomed Bachelet's report and recommendations. M. A. Sumanthiran, a TNA parliamentarian, said that the government's agenda to intimidate Tamils is in full force.

"Under the guise of archaeological research, they are replacing places of Hindu worship with Buddhist statues in the North, and militarization is also at an all-time high," he told Nikkei.

Mario Arulthas, advocacy director for People for Equality and Relief in Lanka, or PEARL, stressed that restrictions on memorialization activities by Tamils in the North and East are rampantly increasing. "The government has blocked events to commemorate the war dead under the guise of COVID measures, but, other religious and political events in the South dominated by the majority have gone ahead without issues," he told Nikkei.

Arulthas accused the state of using threats, along with government bureaucracy and legal constraints to repress legitimate activities of Tamils. "This has had a chilling effect on the activities of many Tamil organizations," he said.

Members of a Sri Lankan group promoting equal rights shout slogans outside Rajapaksa's office against the government's decision to issue death certificates for people who disappeared in the war during a demonstration in Colombo on Feb. 11, 2020.   © Reuters

On Wednesday, however, Tamil political parties and civil society groups defied a court order obtained by police and commenced a protest march in heavy rain to decry increasing militarization of the North and East as well as widespread discrimination. The demonstration, which came just a day before Sri Lanka celebrated its 73rd Independence Day, also condemned what the protesters say are attempts by the state to systematically populate Tamil areas with Buddhists and appropriate Hindu places of worship. In mid-January, a government minister and members of the military placed a Buddhist statue in the Kurunthoormalai area of the country's North by allegedly removing a trident -- a divine symbol commonly used as one of the principal representations of Hinduism -- on grounds that the site contains ruins of a Buddhist temple.

According to Sumanthiran, the TNA parliamentarian, nearly 4,000 acres (1,619 hectares) of land around the Jaffna airport in the North continues to be under military occupation despite the war having ended.

Meanwhile, in what appears to be an attempt to head off the U.N. Human Rights Council sessions, Rajapaksa appointed a Commission of Inquiry to investigate past human rights violations. But Ambika Satkunanathan, the former commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, pointed out that the country has a long history of appointing ad hoc commissions and task forces.

"The question we need to ask is 'why have we had many commissions but negligible substantive action?'" Satkunanathan told Nikkei. "It is because successive governments seem to have used the appointment of commissions as a strategy to avoid addressing human rights violations," she said.

The next couple of weeks will be crucial for the Sri Lankan government as it will have to seriously consider changing direction if it is to prevent serious action by the Human Rights Council at its 46th session from Feb. 22 to March 19. It also comes as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Monday that the U.S. is returning to the council as an observer. "The [Joe] Biden administration has recommitted the United States to a foreign policy centered on democracy, human rights, and equality," Blinken said in a statement. The U.S. had quit the body under former President Donald Trump.

David Griffiths, director of the Office of the Secretary General of Amnesty International, emphasized that the session will be key in devising Sri Lanka's way forward. Griffiths told Nikkei that even though the country is not a signatory to The Hague-based ICC, the U.N. Security Council has the power to refer a situation to the court when it believes there is a threat to international peace and security. "Whether such a referral is likely to happen or not depends on the composition of the Security Council," he said.

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