International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Sri Lanka: New Case, Old Problems for Transitional Justice

The world of international justice has all eyes now focused on Sri Lanka, which has endured a long civil war between the government and secessionist Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and ended in May 2009. The United Nations has just released a report alleging war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed by both sides of the war and calling for accountability. You can get the report here.

The Sri Lankan government vociferously rejects this international judicial intervention and claims that reconciliation should come above all else. See this recent article in The Guardian for more details on the uproar. In contrast, the UN report claims that Sri Lanka’s understanding of accountability is” not in accordance with international standards.”

What can you guys dig up on:

1) How are the violence and post-conflict challenges in Sri Lanka similar to other cases we have discussed in this course?

2) What is the position of the UN and Security Council members on justice for Sri Lanka?

3)What new and old challenges does this pose for transitional justice?  Is there real potential for justice to undermine stability in Sri Lanka or this rhetoric to disguise impunity?


4 responses to “Sri Lanka: New Case, Old Problems for Transitional Justice

  1. lniederp April 26, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    The formula is becoming almost mathematical, substitute Sri Lanka, for Rwanda, Uganda, or Cote D’Ivoire and the premise of the story will remain the same. Conflict leads international law violations – which leads to investigation by the United Nations and/or ICC – which leads to published findings of violations on both or all sides of conflict – which leads to the Government of the conflict host country condemning the United Nations and/or ICC as a biased and politically driven institution whose report is untrue and damaging to the reconciliation of the country.

    Is the U.N report true? Yes. Is Sri Lankan Prime Minister Gamini Peiris (see Professor Timessen’s link for video) right in claiming the U.N Report is damaging to reconciliation? In my opinion, only somewhat at best.

    I believe as students of international justice we must cite poor executive leadership more often as a contributing factor in the failure of reconciliation in post-conflict settings. It has also been said of government that “we cannot ask our government to be perfect, but we can ask it to be honest.” The probability of fighting the “perfect war” in which no violation occurs under international law is nearly zero percent, Executive Leadership of national government must give up this idea that they can pretend to have committed no crimes under international law in the fiery of battle and war, but instead acknowledge and admit their wrongdoings openly in a post-conflict setting to achieve the reconciliation they cite reports, such as the U.N Sri Lankan reports, are preventing.

    Prime Minister Peiris is simply perpetuating this mathematical formula followed by so many executive leaders in post-conflict settings, however he never looked passed the equal sign to see the answer of “continued conflict”.

  2. elino225 April 27, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    I believe that the Sri Lankan case shows similarities with many of the cases we’ve discussed in class. Unwillingness of the victor to take legal actions against themselves is maybe one of the most repeating issue we’ve seen in our case studies.

    This case also really highlights one familiar and overarching theme in the field of transitional justice, peace vs justice. The Prime Minister of Sri Lanka tries to steer the discourse into peace and reconciliation whilst the UN report pushes for accountability and justice. It awakes the standing questions -is peace achievable without justice and vice versa OR – is it simply impossible to have both? And as mentioned in Prof. Tiemessen’s post, – is the Sri Lankan government using the rhetoric of reconciliation to cover up impunity? But how do we “measure” the fragility of peace and stability? We’ve during the course of this class seen that some conflicts keep re-igniting while others stabilize fast.

    Furthermore, I find it fascinating that it took the UN almost two years to complete a report about the final stage of the war; a time period of a couple of months. This lengthy process seems to be a result of the political division in the UN Security Council concerning the Sri Lankan conflict. It is known that China supports and supplies the governmental powers in Sri Lanka, who in return give China access to highly strategic sites on Sri Lankan territory. China has therefore been very reluctant to address the Sri Lankan civil war in the Security Council. It will be interesting to see if the UN will be able to move past this divergence and be able to follow up the report with any actions or demands on the Sri Lankan government. It’s difficult not to turn a bit cynical when studying the process of transitional justice. As we’ve seen before, outcomes and actions often if not always, depend on world power politics.

  3. Hunter April 30, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    I really agree with a lot of what was said in the first response to this post. The Sri Lanka case certainly bares significant resemblance to many other cases we have studied. The Ugandan conflict between the government and the LRA is the most similar of the cases we have studied in my opinion. In both circumstances we see a rebel group composed of a minority ethnic group fighting for independence in the north. Also in both cases we see groups claiming to fight for a specific group of people (Acholis in Uganda, Tamils in Sri Lanka) but in reality they end up bringing destruction, enslavement, and forced conscription to their respective groups.
    So far it seems that the UN has been more firm in condemning crimes by the Sri Lankan government right from the start compared to their more gradual condemnation of the Ugandan government. This may be due to the fact that there are no ongoing ICC investigations in Sri Lanka yet, and with the UN already demanding accountability on both sides, it seems unlikely that the ICC would be welcomed there.
    It is interesting that the Prime Minister has neither confirmed nor denied government responsibility for crimes but rather has focused on the need for peace. While peace and reconciliation is most definitely crucial, there is no question to me that the Sri Lankan government is condemning the UN report because they want to avoid the possibility of indictments among their own ranks.

    • ejpleasant April 30, 2011 at 11:15 pm

      As the people before have stated, the Sri Lankan Civil War is unfortunately very similar to many of the other case studies from this class. The story of a violent struggle between government and rebel forces resulting in the loss of thousands of civilians caught in the middle is a tale told too often in the world of transitional JUSTICE. Whether it is the Rwandan Government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Ugandan Government and the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Afghan Government and the Taliban or the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam; the common thread are the rebel groups labeled as terrorists by the international community who wage war on the government. These conflicts often result in large-scale human rights violations on both sides; breeding grounds for transitional JUSTICE. The UN and the Security Council have publically condemned the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers as belligerent parties. The Security Council’s position on the issue of Sri Lanka reflects the seriousness of the conflict. It takes grave human rights violations for the Security Council to unanimously agree on an issue of this kind. I think the best approach to transitional JUSTICE in this example is reparations especially due to the nature of the issue. Some kind of reparations as a form of common ground will do the state a lot of good. Impunity though contentious may be the best option for this conflict as both sides have committed atrocities.


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