Home Analysis UN gives international community the greenlight to punish Sri Lanka for torture

UN gives international community the greenlight to punish Sri Lanka for torture

Congress is calling on the Biden administration to formally hold Sri Lanka responsible for its human rights abuses and violation of international humanitarian law, including decades of torture, military abuse, and other “horrific crimes” carried out against the country’s minority Tamil population.

In a letter sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and obtained by Foreign Policy, 12 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle urged the State Department to follow Article 30 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and hold Colombo, which has “consistently failed to make tangible progress toward justice and accountability,” responsible.

“In our view, the impunity enjoyed by Sri Lankan perpetrators, which has also enabled Sri Lanka’s economic and political crises, is counter to America’s commitment to upholding human rights and democratic principles and must be stopped,” wrote the lawmakers, led by Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.) and Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), who are calling on the State Department to hold Sri Lanka legally accountable to the U.N. convention on torture.

Since the Sri Lankan Civil War broke out in 1983, the country has been marred with sectarian violence between the majority ethnic Sinhalese and minority ethnic Tamil population at the hands of the armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a rebel group that aimed to establish an independent Tamil state. During the three-decade insurgency, which ended in 2009, the Sri Lankan military carried out deadly attacks on civilians, sexually abused hundreds of Tamil women and girls, and forcibly disappeared thousands of Tamil people who remain unaccounted for still. Four decades later, the families of victims and witnesses of the atrocities are still calling for justice.

While successive governments have tried to establish independent commissions—more than 15 have been set up since the 1970s—to carry out criminal investigations into the country’s dark past, including one by the current administration led by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, none have achieved success in doing so and continue to play deaf to the pleas of the Tamil community.

“Witnesses and others who care about accountability don’t think that the government’s approach is right. They want real investigations that can hold people accountable for not just what happened but the fate of people who disappeared,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The whole idea of any kind of commission to do anything is just deja vu.”

Congress is pushing the State Department to hold Sri Lanka to the U.N. torture conventions by opening up formal negotiations under the international statute, but if those measures and arbitration fails, Congress would like to see the Biden administration take the case all the way to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the Hague, as Canada and the Netherlands recently did to punish Bashar al-Assad’s brutal dictatorship in Syria.

A coalition of nine human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists, expressed concern over Colombo’s latest initiative, writing that it risks “exposing victims to renewed security threats and re-traumatization without any realistic chance of a different outcome.”

“For many in Sri Lanka, this is just the latest case of going through the motions and doing something to appease the international community, just to take the pressure off of the government,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asian Institute at the Wilson Center, who described Colombo’s latest initiative as “window dressing.”

“The government needs donor support and support from the IMF and so it wants to show that it can get its economic house in order so that it can continue to get economic assistance,” he said. “But it’s not addressing the human rights concerns.”

The Sri Lankan authorities today continue to stifle activists, journalists, and non-governmental organizations. The country’s northeast region, home to a majority of the Tamil population, remains heavily militarized with residents being forced to flee or give up land. Last summer, the country’s military cracked down on hundreds of peaceful protestors as they demonstrated against the government amid a brutal economic crisis while Sri Lanka battled a food and fuel shortage and inflation skyrocketed to 55 percent.

Sri Lanka’s pattern of impunity not only stems from complicit and corrupt governance but traces its roots back to the constitution itself which, as legal scholars have argued, is designed to lend itself to authoritarian rule with citizens often finding themselves “ambushed by law reform.”

In 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights rejected the Sri Lankan government’s proposal to set up a truth and reconciliation commission and concluded that the country’s criminal justice system was ill-equipped to handle the sensitive nature and scale of the atrocities carried out during the war. Instead, the U.N. recommended the creation of a special hybrid court made up of both Sri Lankan and international investigators. Colombo never took up the plan.

But Emilia Rowland, the communications director for Rep. Lee, the freshman member of Congress heading up the letter, said a report from the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights released earlier this month that called on the international community to pursue accountability for the atrocities spurred U.S. lawmakers into action.

“No alleged Sri Lankan government or military perpetrator has been held responsible for international crimes in or outside Sri Lanka,” Rowland said. “State responsibility for torture can help address the impunity created by the utter lack of domestic and international criminal justice. Canada and the Netherlands recently took Syria to the ICJ. Ultimately, we hope to see the same happen for Sri Lanka.”

Foreign Policy

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