For some victims, UN report on Sri Lanka crimes is their only memorial

23 September 2015 by Frances Harrison, London (UK)

I learned exactly how a friend of mine was executed from the forensic examination the UN report did of the photographs of his corpse. His hands were tied behind his back and he was shot multiple times from behind. At least I now know he wasn’t tortured before he died, and in the warped world of Sri Lanka, that’s some comfort. I cannot imagine what it is like for his wife to relive this again.

Inhabitants of the Menik Farm internally displaced person camp in Sri Lanka await a visit by the UN secretary-general in 2009 (Photo: Flickr/UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)
Image caption: 
Inhabitants of the Menik Farm internally displaced person camp in Sri Lanka await a visit by the UN secretary-general in 2009 (Photo: Flickr/UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

Nor can I imagine what it is like for the mother of a TV presenter for the opposition to see in black and white that her daughter was killed by gunshots to the head, execution-style, with skull pieces and protruding brain left visible. How does a mother cope with the conclusion in the report that her daughter’s body was desecrated, let alone know that the perpetrators are still a long way off from paying a price for their terrible crimes?

And these stories are repeated hundreds of times over because the UN could focus only on the emblematic cases though they are numerous. 

The 250-page UN report, released last week by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), is filled with legal language and clinical descriptions of extreme brutality. But the 'Report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL)' is also a graveyard of dead politicians, journalists, priests and combatants whom many of us knew personally. For some victims, this is the only memorial they have had in six long years.

The report focused on the extensive atrocities and alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed from 2002 to 2011 by Sri Lankan government forces and their opponents, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in a conflict that has raged for decades. Many human rights activists say remains unresolved, with grave violations still continuing even in peace time.

One human rights activist in the north of Sri Lanka told me he and his friends wept as they read the report, forced to relive all the events of a war that is not yet fully over. Abductions, torture and sexual violence by the security forces are still on-going, and the military still dominates life in the former conflict areas.

Some of the human rights defenders who went to last week's Human Rights Council session in Geneva were harassed on leaving Sri Lanka – a warning that their work still carries huge risks. By the time the report was published on 17 September, several I met were too emotionally exhausted to read it straightaway. For decades they have worked tirelessly for the truth and they personally knew hundreds of the victims or their families. Most victims are very distant from the process in Geneva, but the brave wife of the disappeared Sinhalese cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda was waiting outside the press conference where the report was launched. She seized the report from my hand, eager to see if her husband’s case was there, and then when someone helped her find it in the English text she looked momentarily happy.

Six years on, many of the Tamil war victims even living abroad can still not come into the open for fear of reprisals against family members back in Sri Lanka. In my capacity as a journalist and the author of a book of stories of survivors from the conflict in Sri Lanka, I was a moderator at a side event in Geneva where a survivor of the final phase of the war was present. He came under a false name and was careful not to be identified by other Sri Lankans there. He was a key witness for the UN investigation. After listening to the panel discuss the Sri Lankan government’s plan to consult victims in the coming months, he was palpably frustrated and upset that people like him cannot open their mouths in public and speak for themselves even in Switzerland.

A huge emotional milestone

As a document of historical record, the UN report is a huge emotional milestone on the road to justice. It’s important the whole 250 pages be quickly translated into Sinhala and Tamil so that it’s accessible to most Sri Lankans. For those of us who’ve worked on the issue of war crimes and then post-war systematic and widespread sexual violence by the security forces, it’s a vindication of everything we’ve said for years in the face of a great deal of scepticism, denial and vilification. For the victims living in the shadows who survived these experiences and thought they’d never come out alive, being believed and having their suffering acknowledged is a giant step forward.

In Geneva, though, the immediate focus is the political and legal implications of the report and its recommendations for the future. There’s still lobbying going on around the wording of a resolution on Sri Lanka to be tabled in the Human Rights Council on 30 September, with the government pushing back against significant international involvement in the accountability process.

The new Sri Lankan government [IJT-180] that’s promising change has already announced a truth commission, a special court and an office of missing persons to be established within 18 months, after consultations. Significantly, the new government in Sri Lanka has not outright rejected the contents of the UN report – in fact, the foreign minister called it a very balanced and sober document, but the government does not appear keen on international judges, prosecutors and investigators being part of the envisaged court.

Civil society groups in Sri Lanka agree on one thing: a hybrid accountability mechanism must have a strong international component to have any chance of working.

The UN report made it very clear Sri Lanka cannot tackle decades of entrenched impunity on its own. How much international involvement is the issue being fought over now. But, as one human rights lawyer has said, this is a historic opportunity for Sri Lanka.

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