September 16, 2015


[The creation of a special hybrid court, with Sri Lankan and international jurists, prosecutors and investigators, was just one proposed step in a process of far-reaching institutional change that the United Nations said would be essential to achieving the reconciliation that has eluded the country since the civil war ended in 2009.]


GENEVA — The United Nations called on Sri Lanka on Wednesday to set up a special court, including international judges and lawyers, to investigate what it called “horrific” abuses committed by both sides during the country’s 26-year civil war, and by the government in the suppression of critics and opponents after the fighting ended.

The recommendations came in a landmark report on Sri Lanka that the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, told reporters in Geneva “draws us ever closer to the conclusion” that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed by both government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels.

“Our investigation has laid bare the horrific level of violations and abuses that occurred in Sri Lanka, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, harrowing accounts of torture and sexual violence, recruitment of children and other grave crimes,” Mr. al-Hussein said in astatement accompanying the report.

“We believe it should inspire the very changes so many Sri Lankans have long ached and wished for,” he told reporters.

In a note to the high commission on Tuesday acknowledging the report, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry said it was pleased with Mr. al-Hussein’s recognition of the government’s efforts to deal with issues of justice, governance and institutional reform and remained open to engaging with him on human rights.

The creation of a special hybrid court, with Sri Lankan and international jurists, prosecutors and investigators, was just one proposed step in a process of far-reaching institutional change that the United Nations said would be essential to achieving the reconciliation that has eluded the country since the civil war ended in 2009.

The 261-page report and a 19-page overview were produced by a core team of seven investigators with advice from three prominent international judicial experts. It followed years of resistance to an independent investigation by Sri Lanka’s former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who commanded the armed forces in the closing years of the civil war.
The election of President Maithripala Sirisena in January and the formation of a new government ushered in “a new political context in Sri Lanka which offers ground for hope,” Mr. al-Hussein said.

Though the new government’s offer to introduce a domestic process for reconciliation was “commendable,” the United Nations said, it bluntly asserted that circumstances in Sri Lanka would “require more than a domestic mechanism.”

Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system “is not yet ready or equipped,” it said, to conduct a credible investigation that would deal with the legacy of anger and skepticism left by the previous government, as well as the sheer scale and gravity of the violations committed during the conflict.

The report documents widespread killings by security forces and Tamil Tiger rebels during the civil war, along with the disappearance of tens of thousands of people, including large numbers who were never seen again after surrendering to government forces at the war’s end.

It details the government’s intense shelling of hospitals and of thousands of civilians crammed into areas it had declared no-fire zones, which a previous United Nations panel of experts said might have killed up to 40,000 civilians and which was graphically reported in a series of documentaries aired by Channel 4 television in Britain.

A particularly shocking finding, the United Nations report says, was “the extent to which sexual violence was committed against detainees, often extremely brutally, by the Sri Lankan security forces” during and after the conflict, with both men and women victimized.

Torture by the security forces was widespread, systematic and premeditated, particularly in the aftermath of the conflict, the report says, describing centers equipped with metal bars for beating, barrels of water for waterboarding and pulleys for suspending victims.

For their part, the Tamil Tigers abducted adults as part of a strategy of forced recruitment that intensified toward the end of the war, and they made extensive use of children in armed conflict, the report says.

The United Nations had undertaken a human rights inquiry, not a criminal investigation, and had not therefore tried to pinpoint individual culpability for the crimes alleged, Mr. al-Hussein observed, but he said he believed the report provided “a good foundation for a subsequent criminal investigation.”

“This report is a significant step forward to justice and accountability, but what’s also clear is there can be no turning back,” said John Fisher, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch in Geneva. The United Nations Human Rights Council should give full support to the recommendations in a resolution it is expected to adopt this month, he said.

But feelings were mixed among relatives of the disappeared who were listening to Mr. al-Hussein’s comments in a corridor outside the press room.

“Clearly the report is a landmark. The high commissioner’s statement has given us strength. It means something can happen to achieve justice,” said Sandya Ekneligoda, the wife of a journalist who vanished five years ago.

Vathanna Suntharaj, whose husband, Stephen, a human rights defender, has not been seen since he was abducted off a street in the capital, Colombo, in 2009, was more cautious.
“So many promises have been made,” she said. “I want to see commitment and action.”

For that to happen, the report emphasizes, Sri Lanka needs to institute widespread changes in its security services and system of justice. Its laws do not criminalize war crimes, crimes against humanity or enforced disappearances, and do not recognize different forms of liability, such as command responsibility, the report says. The country also lacks a reliable system of witness protection that would be essential in a nation where the threat of reprisals remains high.

In a statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Monday, the Sri Lankan foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera, acknowledged the weakness of Sri Lankan institutions and promised a series of initiatives, including the formation of a truth and reconciliation commission, constitutional overhauls and reparations for victims.

Still, Sri Lanka’s new government appears to have shown interest only in receiving international financial and technical support. Moreover, Mr. al-Hussein noted that although the United Nations inquiry had operated in a much improved atmosphere since the elections in January, it did not receive more support from the new government in terms of access to witnesses and records than from its predecessor.

“We have seen many moments in Sri Lanka’s history when governments have pledged to turn the pages and end practices like enforced disappearances,” only to see those practices continue, he cautioned. Failure to address the concerns of victims of the conflict, he said, will obstruct reconciliation and “may sow the seeds of future conflict.”