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March 18, 2021

When War Criminals Run the Government: Not Too Late for the International Community to Vet Sri Lankan Officials

Posted by Sondra Anton JD'22 and Tyler Giannini

(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series on the spotlight placed on allegations of war crimes and other abuses in Sri Lanka during the February 22 to March 23, 2021, session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The series includes voices from former U.N. officials, international NGOs, human rights litigators, and researchers. Find links to the full series, as installments are published, at the end of the first article, Spotlight on Sri Lanka as UN Human Rights Council Prepares Next Session.)

The United Nations Human Rights Council’s deliberations over yet another resolution on Sri Lanka this month has cast renewed attention on repeated failures to achieve any semblance of accountability for past atrocities, and on the deteriorating human rights situation over the past year following the return to power of accused war criminal Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president. The lack of accountability and concerns about future violations have rightfully received the bulk of the attention. But there is another question worth bringing to the fore – namely, how did an alleged war criminal return to power – and relatedly, should the human rights system have done more to prevent such individuals from taking official power again?

These inquiries are centered around the legal concepts known as “vetting” and “lustration,” and they deserve increased attention. It is not just the election of Rajapaksa. Since his return to power, after having served as the defense minister who commanded the violent final phase of the country’s decades-long war that killed countless civilians, he has appointed a slew of other compromised individuals who face “credible allegations” of international crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Rajapaksa, for example, immediately appointed his brother, former wartime President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as prime minister, and named other relatives and family associates to top cabinet positions. The large number of individuals with credible allegations against them who now occupy top positions in the government raises concerns about militarization of the government. It also all but eliminates any chance that those who suffered violations will obtain justice in the near term for the crimes committed against them.

The appointments involve so many high-level positions that they have even been described by Yasmin Sooka from the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) as “amount[ing] to a coup by stealth.” And had efforts to vet or ban alleged war criminals from public service been robustly in place, Sri Lanka would likely look very different today.

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February 22, 2021

Human Rights Council Must Break Circle of Impunity in Sri Lanka


22 Organizations Urge UN Resolution Ensuring Human Rights and Justice in Sri Lanka


(Geneva, Switzerland — February 22, 2021)  The UN Human Rights Council must take immediate and concrete action to prevent impunity for past abuses and address the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka, said a coalition of 22 organizations today. Highlighting recent recommendations of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, an open letter from human rights non-governmental organizations and academic centers and clinics urges the Human Rights Council to enhance monitoring of the situation in Sri Lanka, establish an independent mechanism to collect and preserve evidence of past and ongoing violations, and prioritize support to civil society and victims. The Human Rights Council opens its 46th session today. 

Ongoing impunity for serious human rights violations, including allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, committed over the course of a decades-long war has created a crisis of accountability in Sri Lanka. The toll on civilians, who have suffered serious violations and abuses, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual violence, has been enormous with the High Commissioner noting how “the failure to deal with the past continues to have devastating effects on tens of thousands of survivors.” UN bodies have documented Sri Lanka’s persistent failures to protect human rights and a pattern of obstructing investigations, rewarding human rights abusers, and targeting government critics. It is essential that the Human Rights Council pass a resolution with concrete action as a signal to the Government of Sri Lanka that continuing impunity and abuses are not acceptable, and to affirm that the United Nations is committed to securing justice for survivors.

Read the letter from the coalition on the situation in Sri Lanka here.

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