By Taylor Dibbert
Sri Lanka’s civil war ended tragically in May 2009. Ten years on, the wounds of war remain unhealed. That has significant implications for the country’s future trajectory and ensures that, absent some big changes, a return to violence at some later date cannot be ruled out. Besides, victims and their family members deserve justice.
Unfortunately, a recent opinion piece by Lord Naseby, a British politician, is inundated with false and misleading claims. Naseby incorrectly describes how the war ended. He also paints a misleading portrayal of the current state of play. Moreover, his suggestion that the country no longer warrants international scrutiny is just plain wrong. I won’t rebut all the misinformation in Naseby’s piece, but let’s look at some key issues.
Regarding previously passed UN Human Rights Council (HRC) resolutions on Sri Lanka, Naseby writes: “The motivation for the alleged need for the resolutions at all was the very heavy lobbying by that section of the diaspora in the USA, UK and Canada who in their heart of hearts still wanted an independent state ‘Eelam’.”
That’s nonsense. The initial reason for those resolutions on Sri Lanka at the HRC – the first was passed in 2012 – is that the US in particular (along with other likeminded countries) came to the conclusion that, after giving Colombo time to show some commitment to post-war reconciliation, the regime was utterly unserious about doing so.
The tragic way the war ended – with the massive slaughter of Tamil civilians – meant that accountability for wartime atrocities was urgently needed. Yet the increasingly authoritarian, nepotistic and corrupt administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa was never sincere about dealing with the past. Instead, Rajapaksa promoted an anti-Tamil agenda and a culture of brazen impunity. Indeed, the absence of accountability for wartime abuses only encouraged further violations after the conclusion of war. And, even with Rajapaksa out of power, that hasn’t changed.
Sri Lanka Government forces are accused of a host of appalling (and widely documented) violations including: the deliberate shelling of hospitals; extrajudicial killings; enforced disappearances; rape and sexual violence; and depriving Tamil civilians of medicine and aid. Naseby states that: “In reality, Sri Lanka has taken positive steps on the four pillars of transitional justice.” That assertion is, at best, extremely misleading
Naseby’s claims about there being 6,000 end-of-war casualties and the way the war ended have already been refuted convincingly, though he continues to promote a highly dubious version of events. A credible UN investigation concluded that up to 40,000 people may have died during that time. But the reality is that many people believe that that figure could be much higher.
Naseby, a longstanding Rajapaksa apologist, alleges that the “Sri Lanka armed forces took real trouble to look after the fleeing Tamil civilians”. That’s preposterous.
Sri Lanka Government forces are accused of a host of appalling (and widely documented) violations including: the deliberate shelling of hospitals; extrajudicial killings; enforced disappearances; rape and sexual violence; and depriving Tamil civilians of medicine and aid.
Naseby states that: “In reality, Sri Lanka has taken positive steps on the four pillars of transitional justice.” That assertion is, at best, extremely misleading.
Sri Lanka’s transitional justice program has been in deep trouble for some time. The government has created an Office on Missing Persons (OMP), but we don’t yet know if the OMP will be an effective entity. The three other transitional justice mechanisms haven’t even been created. And President Maithripala Sirisena has repeatedly stated that Sri Lankan soldiers won’t be held accountable for wartime violations.
More immediately, the northern and eastern parts of the country – historically Tamil areas where most of the fighting took place – remain heavily militarised locations where a sense of normalcy has largely been illusory.
Besides, Sirisena has been promoting Sri Lankan military personnel who are alleged war criminals. Over the past four years, the president has repeatedly sent signals which suggest that a credible transitional justice plan won’t be implemented on his watch. More generally, the recent political crisis has done damage to the country’s democracy; further backsliding shouldn’t be discounted.
Frankly, we don’t know if another resolution on Sri Lanka at the HRC would be useful or not. I suspect it would not, but that doesn’t mean that international actors shouldn’t remain engaged in some fashion – perhaps by applying pressure on human rights and transitional justice bilaterally.
It’s also worth mentioning that Naseby has been involved with the Sri Lankan Government for many years. Since 2002, he has travelled to the country on numerous occasions – including visits in 2015 and 2017. During those trips, the Government covered a lot of his costs. It’s disappointing that this pertinent information wasn’t acknowledged as a disclaimer in his piece.
Glossing over the truth is irresponsible and dangerous.