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A turning point, and a new phase in the struggle for human rights - TAG

Today’s resolution is a turning point in the battle for the human rights of the Tamil people. It opens up the possibility to obtain justice via international mechanisms for all those who lost their loved ones in the course of the mass atrocities of 2009 and in the seven years prior.

For the first time, we have a clear recognition by the UN Human Rights Council, that an international inquiry is needed. We have an endorsement of the High Commissioner’s position that Sri Lanka is not willing to provide justice for the war crimes and crimes against humanity identified in the report of the UN Panel of Experts. We have broad international acceptance, well beyond the membership of the HRC, that such justice can only be obtained through international mechanisms.

Yet, we do not underestimate the work ahead of us. The full truth of the events in the lead up to May 2009 and thereafter has yet to be uncovered. Of the lives that were lost and those that remain unaccounted for, each of them is precious to us. Each needs to be accounted for. Therefore the inquiry by the High Commissioner for Human Rights that has been mandated today can only be a first step. It must also be seen as one of an array of available measures for justice, the others including civil or criminal prosecutions under universal jurisdiction by individual UN member states.

We must also acknowledge the valid criticisms of this resolution. The resolution itself has not established a clear narrative of what happened. The resolution leaves much that is important unsaid. For example, there is no recognition of the need to identify the intent behind these mass atrocities and no acknowledgement of the ethnic identity of the people of the Vanni where the so-called ‘No Fire Zones’, now under investigation, became killing fields. The perpetrators’ intent and the identity of victims are essential components of the required investigation.

The resolution only touches on some aspects of the current, ongoing persecution faced by the Tamil people: notably sexual violence, disappearances, the lack of land rights, and the lack of freedom of religion. Yet, here too, it does not recognize Tamils as a people persecuted by virtue of their ethnicity. Given the period covered by the resolution is limited, it fails to provide a robust response to ongoing rights abuses in the North and East of Sri Lanka. Neither does it touch on the historic context of violent and systemic race discrimination that has been entrenched in Sri Lanka since that country’s independence from Britain. Sri Lanka remains an extremely repressive state, particularly for Tamils, as exemplified by the present militarised clampdown even as the Human Rights Council was in session.

We now enter a new phase in the long struggle for justice. Foremost is the need to protect witnesses, and preserve evidence. TAG has been at the forefront of such efforts. Last year we successfully argued before the UK Upper Tribunal, Immigration and Asylum Chamber, for witnesses to be recognized as a protected category for asylum purposes. This month we were again at the Court of Appeal arguing that the category of witnesses presently protected is too narrow and a broader set of criteria has to be applied. We met with the British Prime Minister before his visit to Sri Lanka and wrote to him afterwards emphasizing the need for the different departments of the British government to take a coordinated approach to supporting evidence-gathering efforts. We will continue this vital work in the months and years to come, with our partners.

We would like to express our deep appreciation for the efforts of all those who worked alongside us to shine a spotlight on the mass atrocities in Sri Lanka. The challenge before us all remains to find the full truth of the events in the final phase of the war, and indeed in periods prior and since. We do not underestimate this challenge and we urge you not to do so either.