The adoption of a UNHRC consensus resolution on the UN report into Sri Lanka’s atrocities (OISL) has been welcomed by many as the first step in a long process to move Sri Lanka towards an era of justice and reconciliation through genuine accountability, together with the Sri Lankan foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera’s opening address to the Council, which appeared a much welcome reprieve in the state’s hostile attitude towards engagement with the Council and addressing accountability. However, the Sri Lankan government’s own actions and statements made to its Sinhala majority electorate undermine confidence in its commitment to deliver on its promises.
The OISL report unequivocally concluded that a hybrid special court was the only meaningful way of ensuring justice, as it was an “inescapable reality that Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system is not ready to handle these types of crimes” - a point that was reiterated by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein and endorsed by the victims and international NGOs. Indeed, the initial draft UNHRC resolution drew on the OISL’s conclusions and called for international judges as well as wider measures such as the de-militarisation of Tamil areas. However, despite the new government’s promises, its actions cast doubts over its sincerity. Its resistance to key references on international oversight and involvement, triumphalist statements of “saving Mahinda Rajapaksa from the electric chair”, as well as the disingenuous narrative spun to Sinhala voters that the resolution mandates a “domestic inquiry” not only belie the spirit of statements made by the foreign minister at the Council but fuel doubts over the new government’s political will to deliver.
The UN Human Rights Chief, Special Rapporteur Pablo De Greiff and several co-sponsors of the resolution have repeatedly stressed that confidence of the victims will be essential in any process towards justice and reconciliation. Amid militarisation, a lack of credible witness protection, ongoing reports of torture and isolation from the international community, confidence building will be essential. Indeed, for the Tamil victims who have sought justice for 6 years and risked their lives to give their testimony to the OISL, the resolution’s reliance on the government’s political will for implementation and failure to firmly consolidate the international involvement in the justice mechanism was a grave disappointment.
The new government’s decision to follow their predecessors in seeking to appease Sinhala majoritarianism and curtail any potential uproar at efforts to meaningfully address the Tamil people’s grievances does not bode well for the possibility of genuine reconciliation on the island. The polarising triumphalist rhetoric and failure to be transparent to its voters on the resolution’s mandate only hinders the establishment of a credible justice and reconciliation process that meets victims’ and international expectations, and only further alienates the victim community.
The stark truth remains, that despite the OISL report consolidating the findings of two previous international reports and countless video footage and eye witness testimonies, the new government fails to wholly accept the core finding - Sri Lankan troops systematically killed, tortured and raped tens of thousands of Tamils during the end of the armed conflict. Indeed instead of openly and honestly relaying this central truth to the Sinhala majority as a genuine step towards addressing the past, government ministers have called for an investigation to clear the name of the army and pointed to the report’s findings as “allegations only”. The acceptance of these credible findings as the basis on which a process of justice can be founded would be a crucial and fundamental step towards building the confidence of the victims that the new government is sincere it deliver justice for the Tamils. As always, continued multifaceted international involvement and pressure will be key in ensuring Sri Lanka acts to build the confidence of the victims whilst ensuring that recommendations of the High Commissioner’s report and steps towards justice and long term stability are realised.