100,000 people were killed in the over three-decade long conflict. Families of victims of enforced disappearances continue to seek justice, the government is yet to end impunity and put accountability for crimes under international law and human rights violation and abuses in its transitional justice process.
In a recent United Nations Human Rights Office of The High Commissioner report, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stressed that the failure to deal with the past continues to have devastating effects on tens of thousands of families in Sri Lanka, who are still waiting for justice, reparations – and the truth about the fate of their loved ones. The report warns that the failure of Sri Lanka to address past violations has significantly “ heightened the risk of human rights violations being repeated.”
“Sri Lanka’s current trajectory sets the scene for the recurrence of the policies and practices that gave rise to grave human rights violations.” The report also flags the pattern of intensified surveillance and harassment of civil society organizations, human rights defenders and victims, and a shrinking space for independent media.
“I see the OHCHR report as something that will give more oxygen to continue our many struggles, especially for truth and justice,” says Sri Lanka based human rights activist Shreen Saroor to IPS News. The report has articulated the lack of access to justice and the need for accountability very well. It is robust on militarisation and deep securitisation of Sri Lanka and calls for rigorous vetting and demilitarization with a warning of grave consequences if failed, says Shreen.
“Michelle Bachelet’s criticism on surveillance on CSOs and shrinking space for dissent and the abuses of Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act are alarming. However in order to prevent another round of conflict, the report should emphasize more on the ongoing attacks against countries’ religious minorities,” says Shreen.
Earlier in december 2020, Muslims in Sri Lanka were outraged over the forced cremation of a 20-day-old COVID-19 victim against the family’s wishes. Sri Lanka has been flagged for ignoring the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines which permits both burial and cremations.
In a country where minorities are marginalized and discriminated against, Muslims who fall victim to COVID-19 are unjustly prevented from being laid to rest in accordance with their religious beliefs and are forcibly cremated, said Amnesty International in a statement. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world which has made cremations mandatory for people who have died or are suspected of having died from COVID-19. The rights group urged the Sri Lankan Government to not forget that “ it has a duty to ensure all people in Sri Lanka are treated equitably. COVID-19 does not discriminate on grounds of ethnic, political or religious differences, and nor should the Government of Sri Lanka.”
“Many of us who have witnessed continuous minority rights violations over three decades in Sri Lanka, it is important for OHCHR to take on the issue of growing Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism and the extreme nationalism that has been mentioned in the OHCHR report.
“It is time for OHCHR to come up with an early prevention strategy, so that another bloody war or religious violence in this country is prevented,” says Shreen.
Human Rights Watch in its recently released 93-page report, Open Wounds and Mounting Dangers: Blocking Accountability for Grave Abuses in Sri Lanka, examines the efforts by the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to thwart justice in seven prominent human rights cases.
“The Sri Lankan government’s assault on justice increases the risk of human rights abuses today and in the future,” said John Fisher, Geneva Director at Human Rights Watch. “The UN Human Rights Council should adopt a resolution at its upcoming session that demonstrates to the Rajapaksa administration that the world won’t ignore its abuses and offers hope of justice to victims’ families, the report stated.
In 2018, just before and during the ongoing session of the UNHRC, Sri Lankan authorities made several announcements to signify their commitments to pledges made in the October 2015 resolution on justice and accountability for abuses during Sri Lanka’s civil war.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksha months into his tenure in November 2019, made several changes including replacing the 19th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution, which was enacted to limit excessive executive power and facilitate independent institutions including the judiciary with the 20th Amendment, which consolidated power in the executive and nullified the independent commissions mainly Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commissions and Office of the Missing Persons. “Rajapaksa appointed people implicated in war crimes and other serious violations to senior administration positions,” said Shreen.
In February 2020 Sri Lanka withdrew itself from the 2019 UN resolution on post-war accountability and reconciliation, which is scheduled to be taken up in the upcoming session.
Sri Lanka’s main Tamil political parties are now urging for an international probe, and in a joint letter addressed to members of the UN Human Rights Council said, “It is now time for Member States to acknowledge that there is no scope for a domestic process that can genuinely deal with accountability in Sri Lanka.”
According to this report, Sri Lanka is in discussion with India and other countries for support to counter the Core Group’s move which could lead to targeted sanctions, asset freezes and travel bans against alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses in the March session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The author is a journalist and filmmaker based out of New Delhi. She hosts a weekly online show called The Sania Farooqui Show where Muslim women from around the world are invited to share their views.