The Sri Lankan government’s ongoing abuses are undermining the purported goals of its newly proposed truth and reconciliation commission, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says.
This was mentioned in a 39-page report published today (Sept. 18), titled “‘We Raise Our Voice They Arrest Us’: Sri Lanka’s Proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission”.
The New York-based human rights watchdog notes that the victims of past violations, their families, and human rights defenders have rejected the government’s initiative because the government has not consulted them, ignores evidence gathered by past commissions, and it exposes them to security force abuses and re-traumatisation if they participate.
According to HRW, the report has documented ‘abusive’ security force surveillance and intimidation of activists and campaigners from minority Tamil families of those who “disappeared” during Sri Lanka’s civil war.
The rights group accused the Sri Lankan authorities of using draconian counterterrorism laws to silence dissenting voices, including those calling for truth and accountability, while government-backed land grabs target Tamil and Muslim communities and their places of worship.
“Sri Lanka profoundly needs truth and accountability, but a credible process requires the support of victims’ families and an end to government abuses against them and their communities,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy Asia director at HRW.
She emphasized that the latest commission is seemingly aimed at deflecting international pressure over continuing impunity, rather than revealing the face of the disappeared or bringing those responsible to justice.
HRW said its report is based on over 80 interviews in Sri Lanka in June 2023, with relatives of victims of enforced disappearance, other victims of abuses, human rights defenders, activists, and journalists in Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil north and east.
Although President Wickremesinghe announced in June 2023 that he intended to pass legislation to establish the commission by August, and told parliament that the Truth Seeking Mechanism has been established and a Director has been appointed, the human rights watchdog’s report says the Sri Lankan government has yet to publish the details about the new National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (commonly referred to as a ‘truth and reconciliation commission’ or TRC).
With regard to local authorities seeking the support of foreign governments including South Africa, Switzerland and Japan, as well as UN agencies, HRW said, “President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office hopes the initiative will convince governments that there is no need for further scrutiny by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, which has established an expert team to collect evidence of international crimes committed in Sri Lanka for use in future prosecutions.”
The HRW is deeply concerned that the government’s targeting of those campaigning for justice undermines the credibility of the latest initiative.
It also drew attention to the joint statements issued by civil society organizations and victims’ groups, making it clear that while a process to deliver truth and justice is urgently needed, the current initiative lacks credibility and risks further harm to victims and their families.
“International law obligates governments to prosecute those responsible for war crimes and other serious international crimes by all sides. Failing to do so fuels further rights violations and undermines prospects for a durable peace.”
HRW also referred to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk’s remarks in a report on Sri Lanka to the Human Rights Council dated September 00, that for any transitional justice process to succeed, “[t]ruth-seeking alone will not suffice. It must also be accompanied by a clear commitment to accountability and the political will to implement far-reaching change.”
The rights group said the Sri Lankan government should make progress toward achieving credible justice by genuinely engaging with victims and affected communities. It recommended that the government build on the evidence collected and recommendations made by past commissions. “It should support a fair, credible investigation and prosecution of international crimes; immediately end ongoing abuses against past victims, their families, and human rights defenders and activists; and order state agencies to halt ‘land grabs’ targeting minority communities.”
HRW urged foreign governments, including South Africa, Switzerland, and Japan, not to finance or otherwise endorse a truth and reconciliation commission that victims reject and puts them at risk. International partners, including the European Union, should continue to press the government to meet its commitments to end violations committed using counterterrorism laws, it said further.
“President Wickremesinghe promotes ‘reconciliation’ while his government threatens the victims of past abuses and their families and minority communities,” Ganguly added. “Instead of creating yet another commission to give the appearance of progress, the government should take steps to gain credibility for a genuine truth and justice process that Sri Lanka desperately needs.”