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Testimony of Sondra Anton on Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka

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Sondra Anton, student attorney at the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, addressed the United States House of Representatives Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights yesterday, as it held a hearing on 'Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka'.

See the full text of her address and video footage of the event below.

Testimony of Sondra Anton on Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka

Hearing by the United States House of Representatives Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights

Thank you, Chairman McGovern, Chairman Smith, Congresswoman Ross, and esteemed Members of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, for the opportunity to testify today.

Today, my remarks will center on international justice efforts to hold the Sri Lankan state security forces accountable for mass atrocity crimes. I will also identify how the United States can bolster these accountability efforts, particularly for violations committed against the Tamil civilian population that occurred during the final stages of the country’s internal armed conflict in 2009. Finally, I would like to highlight the need to center survivor-communities in the accountability efforts. As the proud daughter of both a Sri Lankan Tamil father and an Ashkenazi Jewish mother, I am the product of two lineages of survivors that, at different periods in history, sought refuge and relief in the United States to escape relentless ethnic persecution and violence. In the context of today’s hearing, it is important that the United States support work by Tamils for Tamils. 

I ask that my written testimony be submitted for the record.

What happened in Sri Lanka in 2009, and the complete impunity to date that has remained for these crimes in the nearly 13 years since, marks one of the worst failures to uphold the promise of “Never Again” in modern history. Much of the bloodshed during this time occurred in government established “No Fire Zones,” where at one point over 300,000 Tamil civilians were trapped between the warring parties, a situation that a 2011 UN Panel of Experts report has described as “reminiscent of hell.” Tens of thousands of these civilians died in the war’s last eight months alone of the twenty-six-year-long conflict— a staggering death toll that came primarily as a result of military shelling.

The past twelve years in Sri Lanka have shown that domestic-led accountability efforts in Sri Lanka are simply not an option. The unwillingness and inability of successive Sri Lankan governments to acknowledge, let alone independently investigate and prosecute those responsible for human rights abuses committed against the Tamil community in 2009 is clear. The return to power of the Rajapaksa family has only reaffirmed that impunity persists. The failure of Sri Lankan institutions to investigate and prosecute has been recognized in no uncertain terms by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in her most recent report in January 2021 on Sri Lanka.

For this reason, international accountability efforts must step in to fill the gap and pursue the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity for 2009-era violations.

The U.S. government has a critical role to play here in bringing high-level perpetrators to justice in international and domestic forums outside Sri Lanka. The U.S. government should:

- First, support the collection, verification, analysis, and sharing of evidence, including survivor testimony. In March 2021, the UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka “[r]ecognize[d] the importance of preserving and analysing evidence . . . , and decide[d] to strengthen in this regard the capacity of the Office of the High Commissioner to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence.” The U.S. government should fully support this call to expand independent investigative efforts as it has supported similar efforts in Syria or Myanmar to collect and preserve evidence;

- The Human Rights Council also called on governments to “to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction.” With this in mind, U.S. government agencies should coordinate and facilitate information-sharing and cooperation with foreign officials’ investigations and prosecutions of  crimes under their domestic universal jurisdiction frameworks; and

- Finally, there should be dedicated support for Tamil survivor-communities to center them in accountability efforts. As those with the most at stake, survivor communities have relevant experiences, evidence, and expertise that should be integrated into a holistic approach to achieving accountability and justice. 

The United States and the international community cannot undue what happened in 2009, but we can make sure that the calls for justice do not go ignored. Thank you for your time today.

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