A Lingering Nightmare of the Past and Perpetuation of Human Rights Abuses in a Post-Civil War Sri Lanka
By DoYun Kim, Asia Advocacy and Government Relations Intern
On June 20, 2018, the House Foreign Affairs Global Human Rights Subcommittee hosted a hearing titled“Human Rights Concerns in Sri Lanka.” After the hearing, it is evident that the call for action from the United States is ever more urgent. As U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, wrote in her letter to human rights organizations regarding the U.S.’s decision to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council, the U.S. should be a “world leader in calling for human rights for all people and in forcing international attention onto mass atrocities.” It should act as a leader in defending the human rights of the world’s most vulnerable people.
During 1983–2009, Sri Lanka suffered a brutal civil war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who, as Chairman Chris Smith (R-NJ) stated, have been “credibly accused of unimaginable war crimes.” J.S. Tissainayagam, a journalist, one of the witnesses at the hearing, and formerly designated as a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International, spoke of the human rights abuses in Sri Lanka — both past and present. Human rights abuses by multiple perpetrators include: arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, executions, the use of child soldiers, sexual violence, and indiscriminate shellings. David Crane, Principal at Justice Consultancy International, LLC, spoke of the systemic targeting of civilians during the conflict, violating a fundamental principle of international humanitarian law.
Many Sri Lankan people were hopeful that 2015 would be an auspicious year with a series of changes including: the new President Sirisena, Sri-Lanka’s co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1, and the signing of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons From Enforced Disappearances. Many at the hearing expressed their frustrations at Sri Lanka’s failure to effectively implement and execute the four transitional justice mechanisms committed to by Sri Lanka in Resolution 30/1: a judicial mechanism to investigate alleged war crimes; an office of missing persons; an office for reparations; and a commission for truth, justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence. Even now, progress remains to be painfully slow.
Almost every speaker at the hearing emphasized the role of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which enables unjust arrests and torture and is a salient instrument of the government against political dissidents. It has yet to be repealed, despite Sri Lanka’s commitment to do so in Resolution 30/1.
The hearing also focused on the significant role played by religion in Sri Lanka and, in particular, how some members of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority community have attacked Muslim and Christian minorities. Mr. Tissainayagam stated that over 90% of the military are Sinhala Buddhists, excluding other ethnic and religious minorities and posing a serious threat against them. Chairman Smith quoted a past statement by the extreme Buddhist nationalist group, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), “This is not a multi-religious country; this is a Sinhalese country.” Furthermore, Dr. Jerryson, associate professor of religious studies at Youngstown State University and a witness at the hearing said, “When Buddhist monks publicly speak, they do so not only as religious voices, but also as political and moral authorities.” Mr. Tissainayagam also noted the increased militarization in the Northern region of Sri Lanka. According to him, militarization in the North is not meant for security, but rather to “control and subdue the civilian population.”
For 35 years, there has been almost no accountability from the Sri Lankan government in confronting the human rights abuses that both the government and the LTTE are accused of. Instead, impunity for past violations by the military and the police has prevailed. John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch, highlighted that “the president and prime minister have both publicly stated that ‘war heroes’ will not be tried for their abuses.” Unanswered questions linger in the bitter air for victims’ families. Amnesty International reports that up to 100,000 enforced disappearancesare reported to have occurred since the late 1980s. One of the missing persons includes journalist Prageeth Eknaligodawhose whereabouts remain unknown since 2010, leaving his wife, Sandya, pleading for information for her family.
The Chairman recognized a statement for the recordprior to the hearing by Amnesty International USA, noting multiple human rights concerns and challenges in Sri Lanka with a list of recommendations to Congress. It echoes the recommendations by witnesses at the hearing who strongly advocated that the Sri Lankan government should: repeal the PTA, strengthen a judicial mechanism to prosecute perpetrators, and publish a timeline to enforce the prior human rights commitments made by Sri Lanka in Resolution 30/1. Additionally, Chairman Smith argued that this is an “opportunity for the United States to stand up for justice and the rule of law.”
Congress should exercise the core American values to express empathy in ensuring that human dignity prevails and that the people of Sri Lanka are guaranteed sustainable peace and justice. The U.S. in particular has a significant amount of leverage over Sri Lanka in facilitating the steps towards justice as its biggest export market. However, the power to create change does not solely rely on a government; it greatly depends on the collective effort of individuals as well. For those who feel compelled to contribute to the voices on human rights concerns in Sri Lanka, Amnesty International has an online petitionto President Maithripala Sirisena calling for accountability for the disappeared in Sri Lanka. Please add your voice to ours.