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.

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