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Pursuing Accountability for Mass Atrocities: What Can the UN Human Rights Council Do?

A panel event about the ongoing 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council and what can the human rights body do to deliver justice and accountability for the Tamil people took place on Tuesday. Titled “Pursuing Accountability for Mass Atrocities: What Can the UN Human Rights Council Do?”, the discussion was organised jointly by People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL) and the School of Public Policy, University College, London.  

A state of entrenched impunity

Speaking first, Ambika Satkunanathan, a former Sri Lankan Human Rights Commissioner, stressed the entrenchment of impunity to human rights abuses in the highest echelons of power in the Sri Lankan government. In a talk replete with quotations of serving top officials in the administration, Ms. Satkunanathan demonstrated the aversion to accountability and transitional justice evinced by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, among many others in the government. Discussing the prospects for transitional justice through an internal mechanism, she argued that a genuine progress in that direction is nearly impossible. She went on to say that the Rajapaksa government is using the law to serve narrow ends and as a means to oppress minorities in the island. “Law is weaponized as a tool of repression and the marginalised and the powerless are subjected to discrimination and violence,” she noted.

The little progress that was made is being dismantled by the new government

Pablo de Greiff, a former Special Rapporteur of UNHRC Experts’ Group on Prevention, pointed out that the little progress that had been made by the previous government is being dismantled by the Rajapaksa administration. He held forth on the various problems faced by the prospects for transitional justice in Sri Lanka, mentioning the unenviable job of the Attorney-General of the country who, he noted, is incapable of delivering accountability to the Tamil people. "It has been pointed out many times in the past that the office of the Attorney General... will find it extraordinarily difficult to make progress in those cases when it is precisely state agents that are supposedly responsible for human rights violation," he said. Speaking further he pointed out that the Sri Lankan police is also unable to adequately investigate human rights violations, pointing to the decay of institutions that sustained Sri Lankan democracy. At the same time, Mr. de Greiff also mentioned the remarkable progress made by the Tamil civil society and expressed optimism regarding its ability to spearhead the Tamil cause.  

No democratic incentive for an internal accountability process

Former Head of the Department of Law at Jaffna University Kumaravadivel Guruparan discussed the reasons for the failure of the internal accountability process in Sri Lanka and spoke about the scope for transitional justice being delivered through pressure from the international community in his talk. Pointing out that lack of accountability is not a problem with the Rajapaksa regime alone, Dr. Guruparan argued that the previous governments were at least as culpable as the present one for their reluctance to bring about reconciliation in the island post-2009. He faulted the present opposition in Sri Lanka for its inability to offer a coherent alternative to the policies adhered to by the Rajapaksa government, which he said strengthens the hand of the government. Dr. Guruparan then stressed that the lack of a strong agenda for justice and accountability in either the government or the opposition is due to the absence of “democratic incentive” in the Sri Lankan polity.  "The reason why the prospects for domestic accountability in Sri Lanka are slim is because there is no democratic incentive," he emphasised. 

'The struggle must go on'

Professor of Comparative Politics at City University of London Dr. Madura Rasaratnam spoke about the need for continuing the campaign to engage international pressure as a means to address Tamil concerns in the island. Dr. Rasaratnam emphasised that the Tamil community has been seeking international attention for their cause right from the early years of independence from colonial rule. She said that the Federal Party (FP) attempted to resolve the brewing ethnic conflict through international means. Dr. Rasaratnam stressed the point that Sri Lanka is deeply sensitive to its international image and the Tamil struggle must focus on exposing the regime’s human rights abuses and connect them to other woes the country faces in the international arena such as its deteriorating financial condition. "At the moment, we all know that Sri Lanka is in extreme financial distress, in a very very precarious position in terms of debt repayments...From the mothers of the disappeared to the credit rating agencies to the capacity of the military leaders to do what they want, there are links. And we can work to strengthen those links," she said. Dr.Rasaratnam exuded cautious optimism regarding the ability of the Tamil struggle to yield results in the future. 

The individual talks were followed by a lively question and answer session moderated by Ms. Beth Van Schaack, a former State Department official, who hosted the entire event. Watch the complete discussion above. 

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