JiC is thrilled to welcome Kate Cronin-Furman for this guest-post on the potential for justice and accountability in the wake of recent – and significant – political changes in Sri Lanka. Kate is a human rights lawyer and Ph.D. candidate in political science at Columbia University. Her research focuses on international justice and accountability for mass atrocities. She is also the co-author of the blog Wronging Rights.
Sri Lanka’s January 8 presidential election shocked the world. The removal of strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa from office and peaceful transfer of power have triggered an outpouring of optimism about Sri Lanka’s democratic future. But on one key set of issues it’s not clear that regime change heralds progress: post-war reconciliation and accountability for international crimes committed during Sri Lanka’s long civil war.
In power for a decade, Rajapaksa had made every effort to stay there, amending the constitution to remove presidential term limits and chipping away at Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions. He installed brothers, sons, and nephews in key positions, and centralized political power in the office of the presidency. His popularity among Sinhalese voters (the majority ethnic group) provided democratic cover for this slide into autocracy. When he called snap polls late last November, a renewal of the mandate for Rajapaksa rule appeared inevitable.
Rajapaksa’s unexpected defeat at the polls was handed to him by an unlikely coalition spanning the entire Sri Lankan political spectrum. Maithripala Sirisena, the new president, was Rajapaksa’s health minister and friend before defecting along with more than 20 other ministers and MPs. His campaign promises to reign in the powers of the presidency, end the corruption of the Rajapaksa regime, and restore the rule of law struck a chord with voters. He received over 51% of the vote, and an overwhelming majority among minority Tamil and Muslim voters. Critically, the security sector upheld the result, apparently refusing Rajapaksa’s attempt to stage a coup when the election returns began to go against him.
Like Rajapaksa, Sirisena hails from the major Sinhalese community. Ethnicity and religion are deeply politicized in Sri Lanka, where Sinhalese make up nearly three quarters of the population. Sinhala Buddhist nationalism (the belief that Sri Lanka is an indivisible, Sinhalese, and Buddhist nation) is a driving force in Sri Lankan politics. Sirisena’s commitment to this ideology is a cause for concern for all of Sri Lanka’s minority communities: for the Muslims and Christians, both of whom have been targeted by extremist Buddhist violence; for the rarely-mentioned indigenous Veddas, who struggle to maintain their way of life and cultural identity; but especially for the Tamils, who endured a 25-year war in pursuit of political autonomy and are now suffering through its aftermath.
Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009 with a ruthless push by government forces that destroyed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgency. In the final months of the war, hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians were caught between the advancing army and the retreating rebels. They were brutally mistreated by both sides; conscripted or forced to serve as human shields by the Tigers, intentionally starved and shelled by the government. A UN report estimates that as many as 40,000 of them were killed, many the victims of illegal government targeting of hospitals and declared “no fire zones”.
The aftermath of the LTTE’s defeat was ugly. In the notorious “white flag incident”, surrendering rebel leaders were executed despite assurances of their safety. Cell phone video footage (whose authenticity the Sri Lankan government vehemently contests) shows the torture, rape, and murder of countless other surrendered combatants. Those who survived were taken into government custody. Ex-combatants were sent to “rehabilitation camps”, and nearly 300,000 civilians impounded in a network of IDP camps under military guard. Some of them remained there until 2012.
International pressure for post-conflict justice in Sri Lanka has so far met with a dead end. In 2014, after several years in which the Rajapaksa regime alternated between defiant hostility and time-buying behavior, the UN Human Rights Council empaneled an international investigation. Sri Lanka refused to cooperate. The investigators were not permitted to enter the country, and individuals believed to be assisting the inquiry were harassed and intimidated.
Sirisena, who was acting defense minister in the final days of the war, has indicated that he will not move far from the previous regime’s policy on this issue. He has sworn to shield former regime members, some of whom are crucial partners in his coalition, from international prosecution. It remains to be seen whether his vague campaign promise of a domestic accountability mechanism offers more than the countless ineffectual commissions Rajapaksa created to deflect international pressure for post-conflict justice. Continue reading