The last hope for Sri Lanka's civil war victims?

Published on January 27, 2021, the latest report on Sri Lanka by the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) makes for desolate and indignant reading. It is an urgent call to action, or more aptly, an imperative one, as it forces the international community to confront what some have called its complacency in the face of egregious human rights violations. Sri Lanka is not an isolated example. But what makes its case particular today is that, after the previous government committed to pursuing accountability for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both sides during its civil war, the current government has entirely abandoned these efforts. "Sri Lanka remains in a state of denial about the past, with truth-seeking efforts aborted and the highest State officials refusing to make any acknowledgment of past crimes,"the UN report concludes, adding "the current Government has proactively obstructed or sought to stop ongoing investigations and criminal trials to prevent accountability for past crimes."

The situation is not only unacceptable per se; it also is dangerous, the UN and human rights advocates argue, for the same conditions that ignited the civil war at the time may well be present again.

UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michele Bachelet denounced "a deepening and accelerating militarization of civilian government functions," noting that "the President has appointed at least 28 serving or former military and intelligence personnel to key administrative posts." Some of the appointees include high-ranking military officers implicated in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

For Pablo de Greiff, former UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence, Sri Lanka appears to have missed a ''historic opportunity'' to build long-lasting and sustainable peace. In 2015, under Resolution 30/1 of the Human Rights Council, the previous Sri Lankan government agreed to work towards truth and reconciliation."Nothing has hindered the transitional justice program in Sri Lanka more than lack of commitment on the part of the Government, which was not only slow in terms of design and implementation, but which wavered in its messaging and ultimately has failed up to this point to take full ownership of the process," de Greiff recently declared.

"The UN High Commissioner's report highlights Sri Lanka's egregious record of complete impunity for appalling crimes and very disturbing developments under the Rajapaksa administration." -John Fisher, Human Rights Watch

For John Fisher, Geneva director of Human Rights Watch, "the UN High Commissioner's report highlights Sri Lanka's egregious record of complete impunity for appalling crimes and very disturbing developments under the Rajapaksa administration." "The Human Rights Council has given Sri Lanka every opportunity to address these issues over many years, and now greater international involvement is needed to help protect vulnerable groups and hold those responsible for grave international crimes to account," he said in a statement following the release of High Commissioner Bachelet's report.

Similarly, former High Commissioner Navi Pillay recently called for the Council  "to make a drastic departure from its customary complacency over the failures of the Sri Lankan government and hold it to account for its non-compliance with HRC resolutions." Navi Pillay was UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time of the end of the civil war in 2009. Her tenure ended in 2014.

According to press reports, in a 20-page rebuttal sent to the High Commissioner, the Sri Lankan government refuted all the accusations, calling the document "speculative, presumptive," and  based "on unsubstantiated opinions."

The hope to move forward now hinges on a draft resolution circulated among the Council’s 47 members by the Core Group on Sri Lanka, which comprises Canada, Germany, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and the UK. The text promotes reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka.

Consultations and discussions among members on this critical resolution are mostly taking place virtually.

The Council's 46th Session will also be entirely virtual due to the pandemic. "This will undoubtedly be a challenge. Face-to-face meetings let you interpret and immediately react when negotiating; this is the essence of diplomacy," remarks a seasoned Western ambassador in Geneva. But also notes that "there is also a positive element in this session being virtual." "Heads of state and governments will be able to attend, and high-level engagements in human-rights diplomacy are important."

The Core Group resolution will be presented on February 24, and will be followed by an interactive session. The debate will take place with all the permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5) present. While the US will have observer status at the session, there is hope among the resolution sponsors and supporters that Washington's return might help deliver the majority required to adopt the resolution.  

"US leadership is particularly needed for one of the council’s most prominent agenda items: accountability for gross human rights violations committed in Sri Lanka. (...)The United Nations Human Rights Council session starting Feb. 22—the first of President Joe Biden’s term—offers an important opportunity to show that “America is back” on the world stage to uphold universal rights and the rule of law," writes Ambassador Stephen J. Rapp who served as the US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues under the Obama administration.

At the time of writing, we understand that the resolution enjoys the support of 19 or 20 countries. "But it is still early. The text has not been widely circulated yet," a senior diplomat outside of the Core Group tells The G|O.

While fully supportive of the resolution, some knowledgeable voices on Sri Lanka hope that should the resolution be adopted, its supporters and the UN will actively pursue its implementation. "Resolution 30/1 was, unfortunately, an example of a resolution that did not translate into many changes on the ground. The reasons for that are complicated. Given political forces in Sri Lanka, it is not a given that 30/1 could have been fully implemented, but I am not convinced that sufficient efforts were made on the ground," one source told The G|O.