The start of the UN Human Rights Council's 27th session this week saw the welcome reaffirmation of resolve to pursue accountability for mass atrocities in Sri Lanka through a UN inquiry from the newly appointed High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid al-Hussein and the US and UK missions. Amid the crises unfolding in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine, the High Commissioner's pointed statement highlighting the importance he places on the OHCHR Investigation into Sri Lanka (OISL) is a significant pledge to fulfill the commendable legacy of his predecessor, Navi Pillay. Equally resolved however was Sri Lanka in its determination to oppose it. Reiterating its categorical rejection of the inquiry, Sri Lanka renewed its refusal to cooperate with UN investigators. Its seemingly desperate attempts to block the functioning of the inquiry, only serve to vindicate the basis on which member states led and supported the resolution in March mandating an international inquiry – Sri Lanka will not deliver accountability and justice for the deaths of over 70,000 Tamils during the final stages of the armed conflict itself.
In the five months since the resolution, Sri Lanka has systematically sought to criminalise NGOs and activists who were principal in its passage, proscribing key Tamil diaspora organisations and activists as 'terrorists' and imposing restrictions targeting the notable handful of Sinhala human rights activists and organisations who supported the inquiry. The diaspora proscriptions not only target those individuals, but seek to prevent evidence outflow from Tamils on the island, to the UN investigators via diaspora networks. Meanwhile, Tamils in the North-East have been collectively punished for their support of the inquiry and are increasingly terrorised in an effort to stop them from engaging with it. Many of the Tamils arrested in mass round-ups around March, including the prominent disappearances campaigner Balendran Jeyakumari, remain under detention in prisons notorious for torture and sexual violence. Tamils found talking to international officials have faced harassment and death threats by state backed mobs and military intelligence officers, while government officials have openly discussed the possibility of reprisal measures against individuals who engage with the inquiry.
It is in this context of five years of absolute refusal to even acknowledge mass atrocities committed against the Tamil people followed by five months of increasingly frenzied attempts to obstruct the international inquiry, that Sri Lanka's claims to the Council of domestic accountability via an internal probe with an international garnish must be viewed. Sri Lanka cannot investigate itself. The alleged crimes are too grave and the state has over several decades under successive administrations, proved itself unwilling to deliver justice to the Tamil people. Indeed even now, the opposition UNP, far from pressing the government to cooperate with the inquiry, criticises the government for placing Sri Lanka under international scrutiny and its armed forces at risk of prosecution.
Amid this intensifying climate of intimidation, the willingness of Tamil people - living under effective military occupation in the North-East and having sought asylum abroad - to come forward as witnesses at great risk to themselves and their families, demonstrates the Tamil people's resolve to pursue accountability, and ultimately justice. It was for these victims that the Council voted to mandate the inquiry, and it is for them that the Council must now ensure sustained scrutiny of Sri Lanka over coming months. Intoxicated with the impunity it continues to enjoy, Sri Lanka's conduct illustrates it will not think twice before intensifying repression of the Tamil people. As the March 2015 deadline for the inquiry approaches, it is clear attacks on Tamils will increase. It beholds member states to ensure the safety of witnesses and safeguard them from reprisal. This must go beyond calls on Sri Lanka to restrain itself and become tangible reprimand and action.