This is the second of a 3-part series of essays and reports which the Sri Lanka Campaign will be publishing in the coming weeks, ahead of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Right’s statement on accountability in Sri Lanka in September-October 2022.
Following years of mismanagement by successive governments in Sri Lanka, the country has recently erupted in a wave of protests as the economy has totally collapsed. Food, fuel, and other basic necessities have become scarce and expensive, whilst the nation’s political class has so far proved totally incapable of managing the crisis. As Sri Lankans took to the streets in increasing numbers in April and May 2022 – particularly those in the predominantly Sinhala-speaking south of the country – the government’s eventual recourse was to call in the military, which has since arrived in force in Colombo. So far in July, video footage on social media has shown the Sri Lankan military, police, and Special Task Force beating and shooting at protestors.
Throughout the recent unrest, protestors have continually demanded accountability for politicians, particularly those of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Rajapaksa family, who they blame for mismanaging the economy. The Rajapaksas have been accused of corruption and nepotism, and there have been persistent calls for them not only to resign, but to face prosecution for these accusations. Despite this public desire for accountability, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has so far remained in power, and most of the politicians who have stepped back have yet to face legal consequences for their supposed financial misdeeds.
However, as some protestors have argued, the accountability crisis in Sri Lanka is not a recent phenomenon. Indeed, protestors in the predominantly Tamil-speaking North and East of the country have long battled against Sri Lanka’s culture of impunity, which has shielded prominent political and military officials from prosecution for crimes committed during the Sri Lankan civil war. Many of those same military and political leaders have also been implicated in other human rights abuses, such as the murder of journalists in the 2000s, as well as the abuses committed as part of the counter-insurgency operations during the JVP uprising of the late 1980s.
There is a long-running crisis of accountability in Sri Lanka, which has not only protected those responsible for human rights and economic abuses but has allowed them to remain in power and commit further abuses. For Sri Lankans, this has resulted not only in economic mismanagement, but in constant cycles of violence and conflict. As the economic situation continues to deteriorate in the country, the security forces have become ever-more violent. Whilst these institutions remain unreformed, and the individuals who lead them unaccountable, there is every risk of re-perpetration of mass atrocity crimes.
This report contains information required by the Campaign’s partners in Sri Lanka from interviews with victim-survivors and their friends and families.
UN member states should:
Push for a strong resolution on Sri Lanka at the 51st Session of the Human Rights Council in September-October 2022. This new resolution should include a renewal of the evidence-gathering mechanism established by resolution 46/1, which allows the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to collect, consolidate, analyse, and preserve evidence relating to gross human rights violations and violations of international law.
Implement the recommendations of the High Commissioner for Human Rights by pursuing bilateral accountability options, including by:
–— Imposing targeted sanctions on ‘credibly alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses;’ and
–— Using the principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction to ‘investigate and prosecute international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka through judicial proceedings in domestic jurisdictions.
’Immediately halt all engagement with the Sri Lankan armed forces until there is meaningful security sector reform, including accountability for individuals credibly accused of human rights violations.
Ensure that conditions for economic aid to Sri Lanka prioritise human rights and governance concerns, including accountability for those credibly accused of human rights violations, and the reform of institutions like the Sri Lankan army, which has a deep-rooted culture of impunity.
Demand that the Sri Lankan government signs the Rome Statue, which would allow the International Criminal Court to pursue justice and accountability for historic and ongoing human rights violations.
Denounce the violent and militarised repression of anti-government protests in the country, as well as the ongoing arrest of human rights activists and protestors in Sri Lanka.
Demand that UN Peacekeeping halts the deployment of Sri Lankan troops until serious reforms are made to the security sector.