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Challenges Ahead: Sri Lanka's mass atrocities and international justice

Detailing the difficulties faced by Tamil voters in the North-East during Sri Lanka's presidential election on January 8, the exiled journalist Nirmanusan Balasundaram, called for a strong international justice mechanism to be set up, stating that regardless of who wins the election, Tamils could not expect justice through a domestic process.

"A gruelling battle is taking place in Sri Lanka between both leading presidential candidates despite certain factors which keep them united, such as ‘war victory’, denial of mass atrocities and rejection of an international investigation into such atrocities. Disturbingly all leading figures in the presidential debate are in competition with each other for self-proclamation and self-promotion in terms of credibility for the war victory, and complete denial of responsibility or acknowledgement of mass atrocities during the war," Mr Balasundaram wrote.

"Regardless of which leading candidate is to win Sri Lanka’s seventh presidential election, victims and survivors of mass atrocities will find it difficult to expect justice or a genuine and credible domestic mechanism into these heinous crimes. Considering Sri Lanka’s political dynamics, the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka will remain unchanged regardless of the outcome of the election. The colour may change but the cage will remain the same," he added.

See full article, published on the website 'Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka', here. Extract reproduced below:

"Incumbent President Rajapaksa is currently facing possible western isolation due to his brutality and his governance style of the country, which seems to be bordering towards dictatorship. His strategy has been to use western pressure on Sri Lanka to maintain democracy and accountability as a tool in order to gain votes from the Sinhala masses.

Throughout the election campaign he has continued to present himself as a victim of ‘international conspiracy’ and ‘international forces’ wanting to take him and Sri Lanka’s armed forces to the International Criminal Court (ICC). It should be noted that Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the Rome Statute. However, Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs has stated that based on recent experience, Sri Lanka can still be vulnerable to ICC jurisdiction.

The President in his address at the first election rally said that the Hague had enquired about the chain of command of the Sri Lankan armed forces and that it was a strong indication that some sections of the “international community” were trying to prosecute the heads of the Sri Lankan military establishments. He also added that the "Sri Lankan government will not bow down for foreign interventions in the matter of the war victory.”

His speeches and campaigns have largely focused on claims of international conspiracies and war crimes charges against the Sri Lankan armed forces, and his determination to resist them.

In parallel, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), an extremist Buddhist party and a key body backing the common opposition candidate expressed that both they and the common opposition candidate have agreed to oppose efforts to prosecute military authorities. General Secretary of JHU said, “We will not give room for international war crimes probe. Whether it is the President, the Defence Secretary (Gotabaya Rajapaksa), the then Service Commanders – Sarath Fonseka and Karannagoda or the likes of Shavindra Silva and Presanna Silva, we will not allow any of these people to be tried before the International Criminal Court (ICC).”

The election manifesto of the common opposition presidential candidate asserts that, “I will allow no international power to ill-treat or touch a single citizen of this country on account of the campaign to defeat terrorism”. He has also said, “I will not allow President Rajapaksa, his family or any member of our armed forces to be taken before any international war crimes tribunal.”

It is important to note that common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena, himself an alleged perpetrator of mass atrocities, could face justice in the future regardless of current international climate which may seem supportive of him today. In fact, the very day he was sworn in as the Minister of Defence, over 1700 Tamil civilians were reported to have been killed and 3000 injured by Sri Lankan government shelling within the space of 48 hours. Thousands more were killed in the days that followed. The infamous white flag incident too took place, while Sirisena was serving as the Minister of Defence.

In order to repel calls for an international investigation into wartime mass atrocities, Maithripala Sirisena stated that he will launch a domestic war crimes inquiry if he wins in the forthcoming election. An important question arises as to how an alleged perpetrator could establish a credible investigation mechanism and what form of justice the victims and survivors could expect from it. Infact, incumbent President Rajapaksa has to date already appointed a few domestic mechanisms with the inclusion of eminent international legal experts to handle the international pressure. However, these were not received well and instead were rather widely discredited by international actors who were already well aware of President Rajapaksa’s intention and strategy behind these initiatives. For the survivors and victims of these crimes, the Rajapaksa regime symbolises  tyranny and mass atrocities.  They have appalling and unforgettable experiences of mass atrocities and broken promises not only of the current regime, but also of each successive previous regime, leading them to have no faith in any domestic justice mechanism.

A gruelling battle is taking place in Sri Lanka between both leading presidential candidates despite certain factors which keep them united, such as ‘war victory’, denial of mass atrocities and rejection of an international investigation into such atrocities. Disturbingly all leading figures in the presidential debate are in competition with each other for self-proclamation and self-promotion in terms of credibility for the war victory, and complete denial of responsibility or acknowledgement of mass atrocities during the war.

Hence, regardless of which leading candidate is to win Sri Lanka’s seventh presidential election, victims and survivors of mass atrocities will find it difficult to expect justice or a genuine and credible domestic mechanism into these heinous crimes. Considering Sri Lanka’s political dynamics, the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka will remain unchanged regardless of the outcome of the election. The colour may change but the cage will remain the same.

Therefore it is vital that a sustainable independent international investigation mechanism into mass atrocities be designed to deliver justice for the victims and survivors.