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February 16, 2022

HLS Student Sondra Anton Testifies Before Congress on Accountability in Sri Lanka

By Sarah Foote

On December 8, 2021, Sondra Anton, JD ’22, testified in front of members of the United States House of Representatives at a congressional hearing held by the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission focused on human rights in Sri Lanka. Anton’s testimony focused on efforts to hold state security forces accountable for international law violations against the Tamil population during the final stages of the country’s internal armed conflict in 2008-2009.

Anton relayed information on the crimes and human rights violations committed by the Sri Lankan government and military forces in the last months of the 26-year-long war that ended in May 2009. She recounted how tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed during this period in one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history. Anton also stressed how survivors of these atrocities are still displaced and family members are often met with opposition and threats from the government there while searching for their missing relatives. Her testimony also observed that the same officials accused of orchestrating alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during this period are back in power today.

Anton first joined the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) in Fall 2020. “I came to law school with the specific purpose of pursuing a career focused on seeking justice and accountability in conflict and post-conflict societies. I chose Harvard in large part because of the amazing work that the Clinic had done in this area on behalf of survivors of mass atrocity,” Anton said, specifically citing the IHRC’s involvement in the historic Mamani vs. Sanchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín case, a case that came to the Clinic at the initiative of then student Thomas Becker.

“The Clinic encourages students to take initiative and build expertise in areas that they are passionate about,” said Professor Tyler Giannini, a Director of the IHRC. “Since bringing the Sri Lanka work to the Clinic, Sondra has made a tremendous contribution and driven our efforts forward in this space.”  

While providing testimony, Anton noted that the United States should play a larger role in bringing Sri Lankan perpetrators to justice. Anton also identified ways the United States could strengthen its efforts while ensuring survivors’ voices are heard and by taking steps such as collection and preservation of evidence of these crimes. She said that the United States and other international communities must work together to bring the perpetrators to justice and provide important and necessary resources for the survivors.

Head shot of Sondra Anton wearing a black dress and standing in Harvard Law School courtyard.
Sondra Anton, JD ’22
Photo by Lorin Granger

“There are so many issues facing Sri Lanka today that were highlighted during the panel, such as the frightening rise in anti-Muslim violence and the resurgence of extreme ethno-nationalist violence under the current regime. By specifically addressing state-sponsored impunity for 2009-era crimes from an international human rights and criminal law perspective, my testimony sought to paint a fuller picture to lawmakers and the public about how salient the past is to the present on the island,” Anton said.

Both Anton and Giannini agree that more work needs to be done to help Tamil survivors of mass atrocity in Sri Lanka.

“Law is but one tool that can help recognize the fundamental human dignity that has been repeatedly denied to Tamils by successive Sri Lankan governments since independence,” Anton said in her testimony.

Anton will graduate in May and plans to do a post-graduate fellowship related to international accountability. She says that advances in international criminal law and renewed attention on Sri Lanka at the United Nations, including an increased investigative capacity in international crimes, will hopefully make it harder for Sri Lankan war criminals to run out the clock on justice.

“Whether through platforms like congressional hearings or in a court of law, I plan to use my training as a human rights lawyer to fight to ensure survivors’ calls for truth and justice do not go unanswered,” said Anton.

To read a copy of Anton’s complete statement to Congress click here.

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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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