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International justice for all

Illustration by Keera Ratnam wavesofcolour

This month marked the anniversary of the deadly 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, which killed hundreds in hotels and churches across the island. Five years have passed, and there are now more questions than answers - particularly around the role of the Sri Lankan state. What has become increasingly clear, however, is that Sri Lanka remains incapable of transparency, and of delivering justice to the victims and their families. As even the most hardcore proponents of domestic mechanisms have come to realise, just like for the atrocities before them, the Easter Sunday attacks deserve international accountability.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the bombings, there had been serious questions over warnings senior officials received before the attacks took place. Far too many knew too much. Sri Lanka’s own Parliamentary Select Committee report revealed a myriad of failures and worryingly highlighted how “vested interests” with knowledge of the attacks may have allowed them to proceed. Since then, various politicians and whistleblowers have claimed that the current head of the State Intelligence Service (SIS) Suresh Sallay played a key role in “grooming” the suicide bombers, suggesting that senior government and military officials colluded in the killing of hundreds. 

This would not be novel on an island that has seen decades of state massacres. But it highlights why transparency over the attacks is desperately needed. To date, the men accused of playing key roles in orchestrating or allowing the killings to proceed remain in positions of power. They must be held accountable.

Even ardent backers of the Sri Lankan state have accepted that this will not take place without any international intervention. Prominent figures such as Sri Lanka’s Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith have repeatedly called for an international mechanism to investigate the Easter Sunday attacks and travelled to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to plead for global intervention. This week, the cardinal even turned on his old friend Gotabaya Rajapaksa, accusing him of deliberately obfuscating investigations and stating that the former president has “no interest in delivering justice”.

The move marks an interesting change of heart for the cardinal, who was previously a close ally of the Rajapaksa clan. The ethnically Sinhalese archbishop has staunchly defended the Buddhist nature of Sri Lanka and repeatedly dismissed allegations of war crimes as well as Tamil calls for justice. "Foreigners should not tell us what to do,” he once said as Tamils demanded an international investigation into the genocide that saw tens of thousands massacred by the Sri Lankan army. With his frustration over the lack of justice for the Easter Sunday attacks clear however, it seems that he has seen the error of his ways - at least on this particular atrocity. 

Whether that same logic applies to Tamils, however, is doubtful. With the 15-year anniversary of the Mullivaikkal genocide next month, the cardinal has still only mentioned the mass killings of Tamils just once. But as the lack of justice for the Easter Sunday attacks demonstrates, the 2019 bombings did not occur in a vacuum. It took place amidst decades of interethnic conflict and a climate of total impunity, which has allowed massacres to go unpunished and seen war criminals pardoned. The Tamil people were right. For the Easter Sunday attacks, the Mullivaikkal genocide and the countless massacres before them - only a fully independent and international accountability process will deliver justice.

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