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'UN credibility is at stake’ warns HRW, backing calls for sanctions on Sri Lanka

Following a damning report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, Human Rights Watch has endorsed the recommendations of the High Commissioner for targeted sanctions on Sri Lankan officials credibly accused of war crimes and for the establishment of an independent international mechanism to investigate violations of international law.

In their 93 page report entitled, “Open Wounds and Mounting Dangers: Blocking Accountability for Grave Abuses in Sri Lanka,” HRW highlights efforts by the government to thwart justice in seven prominent human rights cases and warns that the UN will lose credibility if they fail to adopt a tough resolution at the 46th UNHRC session this march.

In their report, HRW also highlighted the 2012 Petrie Report which laid bare “systemic failures” of UN officials to “stand up for the rights of the people they were mandated to assist”. In the final months of the war, the report notes, “the UN almost completely omitted to explicitly mention Government responsibility for violations of international law”. This was as the majority of “casualties were caused by Government fire and included attacks on UN premises and hospitals”.

Despite over a decade passing since the end of the armed conflict, successive administrations persistently refused to hold war criminals accountable. “There have been virtually no successful prosecutions of members of the security forces for human rights violations”, HRW notes. Instead, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who himself stands accused of war crimes during his role as defence secretary, has promoted those implicated in war crimes, such as Kamal Gunaratne and Shavendra Silva who commanded the notorious 53rd and 58th divisions respectively, to senior cabinet positions.

In 2019, the High Commissioner warned that “the risk of new violations increases when impunity for serious crimes continues unchecked.” The following year she stated that “the failure to ensure accountability for past violations and to undertake comprehensive security sector reforms” and in her latest report warns of a “heightened risk of future violations”.


Abductions and disappearances

In their report, HRW highlights that during the previous Rajapaksa administration, “thousands of young Tamil men who were suspected LTTE supporters, as well as journalists, activists, and others deemed to be political opponents were abducted, many by armed men operating in white vans, which became a symbol of political terror”. Gotabaya Rajapaksa stands accused playing a key role in these abductions.

HRW further notes that Families of the Disappeared have continued to face threats and harassment from state security forces. One of the Mothers of the Disappeared, whose son was forcibly disappeared in 2009 told HRW that since the presidential election she has been repeatedly visited by members of the police Criminal Investigation Department (CID):

“They have come and asked who is going to meetings. And who is going to Geneva [to attend the UN Human Rights Council]. These are children who were taken by white vans from our houses or who surrendered [to the army]. These are the children we are talking about. I want to know what happened to my son, whether he is dead or alive, and if he is not alive, what happened to him and who did it; whether he was beaten, whether they broke a limb”.


Hollow promises

HRW has slammed Sri Lanka’s claim that they will launch yet another domestic inquiry noting the failures of previous commissions and describing such a gesture as a hollow promise.

They further note, “Sri Lanka’s already inadequate and flawed investigative and legal institutions have lost any semblance of independence”.

This statement follows the passage of the 20th amendment which consolidates power within the presidency and undermines the autonomy of numerous key institutions. Following the passage of this bill Rajapaksa establishment of an all-Sinhalese board to the Human Rights Commission which led the former Sri Lankan Human Rights Commissioner to admit that the institution could no longer be considered independent.

Read more here: Former Sri Lankan Human Rights Commissioner admits the institution is no longer independent as calls for an ICC referral ramp-up


White-washing of crimes

In January 2020, the Rajapaksa administration established a presidential commission to examine supposed “political victimization” of government officials by the previous government.  HRW notes that this commission has frequently interfered with the proper functioning of the courts and police inquiries.

In late January 2020, the commission ordered a halt to the trial of former Navy Commander Wasantha Karannagoda and thirteen others accused of the disappearance and abduction of 11 primarily Tamil youth between 2008-2009. This was despite the attorney general stating the commission had no power to do so. The trial was scheduled to proceed until it was stayed by the Court of Appeal in June 2020. 

Read more here: Sri Lankan Court of Appeal blocks proceedings against Navy Commander over youth abduction case


The commission has also sought to intervene in several other cases, including the abduction and torture of Keith Noyahr, the murder of Lasantha Wikremetunge, and the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda.

HRW further reports concerns that the commission has obtained police files related to investigations that have focused on the alleged role of military intelligence and leaked them to the military. HRW has urged Sri Lanka to not adopt any recommendations put forth by the Commission.

Whilst an official report has not been released by the Commission, the Colombo Telegraph has reported to have obtained an alleged leaked copy which shows the Commission has been used “exonerate, white-wash and acquit without charge perpetrators of the most heinous crimes committed in Sri Lanka”. These include war criminals, abductors, and money launderers.


Denial of a people’s right to memory

The report also commented on the destruction of the Mullivaikkal memorial at Jaffna University which sparked international criticism and was seen by students as a “denial of a people's right to memory”.

In September 2020, UN Special Rapporteur, Pablo de Greiff, reported on the importance of psychological support throughout Sri Lanka but “particularly in the North and East, where trauma and tensions have been exacerbated by official denials of the suffering experienced by Tamil civilians during the civil war”.

In his report, he highlights the criminalisation of Tamil memorials and notes that;

“Grieving families have expressed the need to bury or destroy photographs of their deceased loved ones in uniform for fear of harassment by the security forces”.

Read more here: Sri Lanka has missed a ‘historic opportunity’ for transitional justice and holds a ‘dismal record’ on accountability - UN Special Rapporteur



HRW calls on the UNHRC to adopt a resolution which establishes “independent international mechanism or process to investigate allegations of serious human rights abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity, secure evidence, and identify perpetrators for future prosecution”.

They further call on the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Japan, China, India, and Other Governments with Influence in Sri Lanka. To not only support such a mechanism but also to:

- “Impose targeted sanctions on individuals credibly accused of serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka.

- Speak out in public and private against attempts to stifle civil space and dissent.

- Pursue criminal investigations against credibly alleged perpetrators of crimes committed in Sri Lanka who are subject to universal jurisdiction and prosecute where the evidence is sufficient.

- Condemn in public and private hate speech and discrimination against minorities in Sri Lanka, especially by ruling party leaders and supporters.

- Call upon Sri Lanka to meet its international human rights commitments to continue to enjoy privileged trading access.

- Work in coordination with partner governments to support and uphold the values of post-conflict reconciliation and equal respect for the rights of all communities in Sri Lanka in public and private interactions with the government of Sri Lanka and in development programming.

- Establish and implement guidelines for development partners to ensure that international aid is not used in programs or projects that disadvantage minorities, including their land rights, and that the military does not benefit from foreign aid until it implements commitments to accountability and security sector reform.

- Suspend military cooperation with the Sri Lankan armed forces until commitments to accountability and security sector reform are implemented.

They further call on the European Union to end the preferential trade agreement it had established with Sri Lanka, known as GSP+.

Read HRW full report here.


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