Can the new Sri Lanka deal with its past?

19 April 2015 by Frances Harrison, London (UK)

After he swept to power in a surprise election result in January, Sri Lanka’s new president promised a break with the past. So far, that has meant moves like easing press restrictions and tackling corruption, rather than dealing with the worst crimes associated with the 2009 civil war. President Maithripala Sirisena promised “a strong internal mechanism to look into human rights”, but it is unclear when it will be established or what its remit will be. Critics say that for genuine accountability, it will have to tackle more than human rights abuses.

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena at his swearing-in ceremony on 9 January 2015, in Colombo (Photo: Flickr/presidentgovlk)
Image caption: 
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena at his swearing-in ceremony on 9 January 2015, in Colombo (Photo: Flickr/presidentgovlk)

A 2011 UN Panel of Experts said Sri Lanka’s conduct during the civil war’s final phase was “a grave assault on the entire regime of international law”. Its report concluded that 40,000 civilians might have been killed in a matter of five months, stating: “Most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by Government shelling.” The panel found that the Sri Lankan Armed Forces systematically shelled hospitals, no-fire zones and food queues as they advanced against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a group designated worldwide as terrorists for using child soldiers and suicide bombers. A later UN Internal Inquiry estimated 70,000 civilian deaths. After the guns went silent in 2009, systematic, widespread abductions, torture and rape by the security forces of suspected former rebels continued with impunity, according to a UN Security Council report published last week.

Want to read more?

If you subscribe to a free membership, you can read this article and explore our full archive, dating back to 1997.

Subscribe now

Related articles

article
19 February 2007 by Laetitia Grotti

One year ago on January 6, 2006, the 17 members of Morocco's Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER) were closing up shop after submitting their final report to King Mohammed VI. The Moroccan truth commission had received a flood of compliments from the international community praising the recommendations in its report, especially those advocating legislative and constitutional reforms. One year later, however, the results have been rather mixed.

article
11 September 2006 by our correspondent in Arusha

After having tried high-ranking officers, ministers, businessmen, priests, journalists, local officials and militiamen, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is in uncharted waters. On September 11, the most famous rwandese troubadour of his generation will stand trial for genocide. 

article
23 October 2006 by Christine Chaumeau

China is keeping a polite distance from international criminal justice. Beijing is hardly disinterested, but China does want to make sure that these new global mechanisms are not going to infringe upon its sovereignty by delving into particularly sensitive cases such as Tibet. 

article
United Nations Operation in Burundi disarms rebel forces in Mbanda in February 2005 (Photo: Flickr/UN Photo/Martine Perret)
03 June 2015 by Janet H. Anderson, The Hague (The Netherlands)

Over the last month, Burundi has hit the headlines as the president put himself forward to be elected for a controversial third term, resulting in street protests, thousands of refugees who fled instability and an attempted coup. Behind the issues of elections and constitutionalism are also those of justice following Burundi’s long-running civil war. The international community supported an intensive process of negotiation and the signing of the Arusha Accord in 2000. But in the decade and a half since, its provisions on justice have been debated though never fully implemented.

article
06 November 2006 by Pierre Hazan

France's attitude towards international criminal justice is marked by ambiguity. Paris subscribes to a vision of the world in which international humanitarian law is considered a way to curb violence against civilian populations, but at the same time it is wary of an unchecked judicial system that could end up prosecuting French soldiers engaged in areas where it has old and deep-rooted interests.