International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Impunity Gap: Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a notable case of an “impunity gap.” It’s widely acknowledged that crimes were committed by both sides, the government and Tamil rebels, in Sri Lank’as civil war. Yet, there is no domestic political will to hold perpetrators accountability and the international community has shirked their responsibility to call for justice. (You may also want to read a past blog post of mine on this topic.)

Watch the controversial documentary called “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” by Channel 4 and do some quick online research. You can respond with you general thoughts on the film but also try to address one or more of the following questions.

a) What are the atrocities that a transitional justice mechanism should address?

b) What is known about who is “most responsible” for atrocities?

c) What have the victims demanded in terms of justice? Is there support for a tribunal, truth commission, reparations? Is there strong domestic pressure from victims and civil society?

d) Unlike other cases of atrocities in civil war, the United Nations Security Council and Human Rights Council have failed to adequately pressure the Sri Lankan government to mete out accountability. What explains this failure? What role has the UN played so far?

e) What type of transitional justice mechanism(s) would be most appropriate in this context? And who should implement it – the UN or the Sri Lankan government?

(Please provide links to any of the information you can across in your research).


10 responses to “Impunity Gap: Sri Lanka

  1. claudialora March 31, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    In 2009 Shri Lanka finally ended a twenty year civil war between the government and the rebel force of liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant group who fought to create an independent Tamil state. During this period several crimes were committed by both sides, nonetheless the local government has not hold all perpetrators accountable and has failed to provide justice to the Sri Lakan victims. Post civil war the government established the “ Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission” as a way of rejecting any type of international investigation on allegations of war crimes. However the report of the commission does not fully recognize the war crimes of government forces committed during the civil war , it denies that any civilians were target by the government and identifies the ETTL as the sole responsible. Nonetheless the documentary provided by channel 4 “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” provides evidence of a series of war crimes and human rights violations committed by the Sri Lankan military forces and government. Footage of Sexual violence, execution of LTTE rebel forces and usage of explosive projectiles towards civilians in no fire zones incriminate the Sri Lanka military of being responsible for these atrocities. The documentary also demonstrates how the government downsized the number of people in the conflict zone and deprived them of humanitarian aid, food and medical supplies, which resulted on the death of several civilians. What is most upsetting is that the highest levels of government of Sri Lanka were highly aware of the war crimes being committed and appeared to be involved in several missions in which hundreds of civilians died. Photographs videos and forensic investigators alleged that the Sri Lanka government and military forces were highly involved in war crimes and human right violations, nonetheless the UN and the international community have failed to pressure the Sri Lanka government to provide accountability for its crimes. it appears as if the international community closed thier eyes and allowed the Sri Lanka government to sacrifice part of its population’s life in order to capture the rebel forces.
    Through the establishment of the “Lessons learned and Reconciliation Commission” we are once again witnessing a case of victor’s justice, in which the victorious government crimes remain in impunity, while the ETTL members are the only ones that have to face justice. I doubt this commission could ever be successful and bring reconciliation within the Sri Lanka population, because it is not giving the victims a right to truth and it is not providing the population with accurate facts. It is deeply sad to see hundreds of civilians being targeted by their own government, but it is even more disappointing to see how the international community allow civil war crimes go unpunished.

  2. inesventura4 April 4, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    After watching this video I was horrified, shocked, and angry. It amazes me that so many people can die and so much disturbing footage can be accessed and yet there is no one to take responsibility for these atrocities. The victims and their families deserve better than that.
    What is even crazier is the fact that the international community, through reputable sources, have proof that the president and defense minister of Sri Lanka are at fault for targeting civilians and having them killed, yet there is still some question as to whether or not the government and military leaders did provide resources for these crimes. Apparently images of dead or dying children, women, and men along with the United Nations’ claim that Red Cross relief was refused by the government is no longer enough for the international community. To make matters worse world leaders will be meeting in Sri Lanka in 2013 despite all of these crimes. Every victim will have been forgotten by then and everything will be going on as usual. I wonder if there will be any “no-shows” for that event.
    War crimes, crimes against humanity, targeting civilians, and sex crimes should all be addressed using transitional justice mechanisms. Every issue is important to address in this way in order to provide accountability for crimes and provide assistance for victims and victims’ families to move forward in a peaceful way.
    The mechanisms of transitional justice that should be used can vary by opinion. In my opinion, I feel that the known perpetrators – the president, defense minister, and some military leaders – should be held accountable by prosecution in the ICC. Since the faults were committed by the current government it is impossible for the Sri Lankan government to prosecute themselves.
    A truth commission would also be beneficial for the families that feel the most need for it since they are typically used when atrocities committed by the government are at stake. Along with truth commissions reparations should be given to victims and families and memorials should be created to remember the victims of this civil war. I feel that in this case while the most responsible should still be held accountable under the rule of law for the atrocities committed, most of the focus should be on victims and families since they endured an extremely long civil war with immeasurable emotional distress that may hinder them from moving forward in a more positive light. There needs to be as much victim outreach as possible. Once again this is nothing the government can do. They tried by creating the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) but this was just a cover-up for the government in my opinion. This commission did not accomplish much and victim outreach was not its main priority which shows a failure on the government’s part. Then again, I wouldn’t expect much else from them after watching this video.
    On that note, the government, military and possibly other public entities such as police forces and judicial appointees, need to be reformed before justice and peace can be seen as accomplished in Sri Lanka.

  3. littleclimber April 4, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    The case of humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka is a case I unfortunately a case that I have known little about until now. And I still do not know nearly enough as far as I’m concerned. The video posted illustrated the violence that was directed at Tamil civilians during the civil war in Sri Lanka. The evidence presented by the United Nations demonstrates that the government and the military forces were directly targeting civilians within the “no fire” zones for brutal sexual violence and executions. There is also indisputable evidence to support accusations against the government and heads of state of knowingly and intentionally denying desperately needed medical supplies and food aid to hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in these supposedly protected “no fire” zones.

    After the conclusion of the civil war, the Sri Lankan government created the “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” to address the concerns of the international community enough to avoid any external investigation of the crimes committed during the war on the side of the government. Based on what I’ve seen in video, the commission seemed to be somewhat of a sham. The commission (run by the government, a guilty party) ignored massive sexual crimes, indiscriminate violence, executions, and denial of food and medical supplies. Widely known war crimes were unacknowledged and the intentional targeting of civilians was completely denied.

    International courts should protect the unalienable rights of every person, including the right to life, to freedom from fear, and the right to security. The international community has a responsibility to protect these rights for any person or persons when and if the person’s state is unwilling or unable to do so. International courts(especially and specifically the ICC) should be charged with holding accountable individuals who commit the gravest crimes as recognized by international humanitarian law, those being crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of genocide. In the case of Sri Lanka transitional justice must address most clearly the war crimes committed against civilians, many women and children. Given the knowledge I have, the government of Sri Lanka is unwilling to fully investigate war crimes committed and to make a legitimate effort to provide justice for the victims and therefore the ICC has jurisdiction once a referral is made. I think the Sri Lankan government lost its chance to conduct an investigation and seek justice when it concluded the LLRC without addressing so many crimes committed against civilians and published a lot of lies instead of ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ as should have been sought by the commission.

  4. cmreed23 April 6, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    Let me firstly say that this was one of the most disturbing, horrifying, upsetting yet effective documentaries I have ever watched. The images displayed for the world to see pull on all sorts of human emotions and perpetuate anger at the injustice and impunity that still reigns in this country upon the film’s conclusion.
    The “alleged” war crimes explained in the Channel 4 news film consist of atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan military in response to a civil war taking place between the government and the rebel group Tigers of Tamil Eelam (TTE). The focus of the film was during the final months of the war occurring in 2009. Some of the highlights of this film focus on the brutal attacks of UN relief ‘no-fly zones’ and the blatant military involvement in these attacks. It also highlights the denial of the extent of civilians located in these encampments (reaching between 200,000-300,000 persons) and how the Sri Lankan government only provided enough relief for about 60,000 civilians.
    This particular documentary was a follow-up film to one that was produced previously and had created substantial controversy, particularly from the Sri Lankan government itself. They have denied several of the accusations as well as produced a report of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission that was put in place as a public acceptance of pressing forward in moving past the conflict.
    The main issue with the current affair of Sri Lanka is not only that the gross majority of these heinous crimes have gone on somewhat ignored and underreported, but that those most responsible remain in power still today. Transitional justice needs to address these crimes at face value and try those most responsible; something the International Criminal Court has been designed to do. The very fact that Rajapaksa and his brother remain in power despite evidence through ‘wikileaks’ and other internationally recognized sources of information claiming their involvement in civilian attacks is shameful. Not only do the victims themselves live each day without justice, but the regime which targeted, destroyed and executed them remain in power.
    Perhaps one of the most unsettling ideas emerging from this film is the scene where the Queen of England as well as several other noble heads of state shake Rajapaksa’s hand as he enjoys international diplomacy. He has committed grave violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law which should be charged as such: war crimes and crimes against humanity. In addition, there is overwhelming evidence of sexual violence which seems to be utilized in all of these horrific wars.
    The Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission cannot possibly be effective- the government in power is the so called “victor” of the war and thereby cannot execute a fair or unbiased Commission. Also, their very denial of many of these crimes undermine a truth commission at it’s core.
    Because the Sri Lankan government is itself a perpetrator, it is not possible for them to fairly carry out any sort of justice for the people of Sri Lanka. Therefore, this falls into UN jurisdiction as well as that of the international community at large.

  5. carolinegrady40 April 6, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    After viewing the documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, I not only was more knowledgeable about this particular case study in transitional justice and humanitarian crises, I was also horrified. The documentary utilized actual footage from the civil war in Sri Lanka, and the images shown were graphic and disturbing. However, in order to bring light to the importance of transitional justice these types of images were more than necessary.

    It cannot be denied that both sides are guilty of crimes against humanity, and some justice needs to be handed down. However, the civilian population was genuinely wary of truth commissions and justice in general. Despite this, truth commissions were established to pave the way for some sort of justice, mostly to appease the international community. Unfortunately these commissions do not have the ability to prosecute both sides of the war. There is no impartial side, as the case is not before the ICC, which is the most impartial court the international community can muster.

    Despite overwhelming evidence that the president and the prime minister were both involved in the atrocities, the international community has not moved to promote any sort of outside justice. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, or the LLRC, was established to investigate the potential crimes that were committed. But this commission was established by the Sri Lankan government, an entity that is just as responsible for the crimes as the rebel forces. This highlights the glaring problem that exists with truth commissions, and justice in general: there must be a victor and there must be an angle through which the crime is examined.

    How, then, can the international community bring the Sri Lankan government to justice for its crimes? Why hasn’t the Security Council further discussed bringing the Sri Lankan crimes before the international criminal court? The crimes occurred between 2002 and 2009, and so it is a perfect case for the Court. Finding justice for the women, children, and other innocents who lost their lives is the most important factor, but if the Sri Lankan government refuses to conduct a fair trial into every aspect of the crimes it is next to impossible. In this particular situation, arguments regarding sovereignty should be cast aside in the interest of bringing true justice to a war ravaged and scarred community.

  6. adele71890 April 7, 2012 at 12:32 am

    Watching the documentary of “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” was not only enlightening but horrific to think that something like this is going on. The president and prime minister most specifically were both involved with these crimes, and yet the international community hasn’t been able to bring them to justice. “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” underlined atrocities committed on both sides. But, most disturbing was seeing the series of war crimes perpetrated by Sri Lankan government forces for example sexual assaults on female fighters and the execution of prisoners in what were supposed to be safe ‘No Fire Zones’. Transitional justice should address those specific atrocities as featured in the film; crimes against humanity and war crimes. The most responsible for these atrocities is the Sri Lankan government: President Rajapaksa, commander in chief and his brother Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaska – and two former army chiefs who have gotten major diplomatic posts since the war ended and immunity from prosecution.

    The victims in terms of justice don’t want to be forgotten, since this ended in May 2009. They want the dictators of the Sri Lankan government to be held accountable. It is difficult because this underlines the battle between reconciliation as well as accountability, which illustrates restorative justice. The Lesson’s Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was a terrible and defected attempt of the Sri Lankan government to show further that they don’t need or want international intervention. Reconciliation is most important to them because they don’t want to accept responsibility or move further with persecutions because they want to disguise their wrong-doings. Under transitional justice mechanism there should be support for reparations, institutional reforms, criminal prosecutions, and truth commissions.

    The most appropriate transitional justice mechanisms would need to be reparations, criminal prosecutions, and memorials. It should be the Sri Lankan government who implements these mechanisms. It is up to Sri Lanka to implement constructive recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and take the necessary steps to address accountability, so these crimes don’t continue to go unpunished.

  7. Alana Tiemessen April 7, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    As you’ve all now learned, this is a really tough case for international and transitional justice. There is international consensus on a) the fact that both sides have committed serious crimes – war crimes and crimes against humanity, notably involving the direct targeting of civilians b) the “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” was ineffective and biased at best and a farce at worst and c) that the government is the victor in this civil war and high level government officials are likely criminally responsible for many of these crimes.

    But of course, the Sri Lankan government is playing the international justice game well. It is taking advantage of sovereign right to non-interference while at the same time pledging a commitment to “home-grown” justice and reconciliation to stave off any international judicial intervention. The international community now privilege local solutions as a first option but there is no political will to intervene with the ICC or any other tribunal if the Sri Lankan government fails to live up to these promises.

    There are parallels to other cases. The UN threatened Indonesia that if it didn’t adequately hold the TNI (Indonesian military) accountable for crimes in East Timor than international tribunals would be set up. Despite ongoing TNI impunity and pledges of “reconciliation” between Timorese and Indonesian elites, the threat of international justice has proven empty. There may also be a parallel here with Rwanda, where there has been little pressure from the international community on the government to prosecute RPF crimes. The Rwandan government too plays the sovereignty and reconciliation card.

  8. adamc8 April 7, 2012 at 11:12 pm

    One of the interesting aspects of the film is the type of media exposure that this case received, which was documented at the beginning of the film. Sri Lanka, who is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, commanded the immediate attention of the British Government. I thought it was interesting that the investigators were able to interview the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, about the events in the region.
    What was notable was that the Sri Lanka government went to great lengths to postulate a story that tried to absolve itself of anywrongdoing. It was clear from the film that the Sri Lankan army was responsible for the atrocities that they were accused of, yet at every turn they denied they had any involvement. They appear to be the most responsible not only for their military actions that harmed many people, but because their response to international aid was to block it. By preventing medical and food aid from getting to those that desperately need it, the government is failing to provide one of its most basic function: providing basic public services. During the second half of the special, the investigators also noted that there was a significant amount of journalist suppression. They interviewed one journalist who said that those who reported about the negative actions about the government were often threatened with violence or even killed. This is another example of the government doing everything in its power to cover up their misdeeds.
    In the aftermath the President of Sri Lanka ordered that a truth commission be established in order to foster a national reconciliation and peace process. Even though the government was under intense international pressure to do so, it was ideally the right thing to do. However the report that came from the truth commission did not accuse the government of any wrongdoing, and thus was criticized by mane international NGO’s. In an ideal and stable situation, the establishment of a truth commission would be a good option if given a correct mandate and widespread support from Sri Lankans. South Africa’s TRC was considered successful in discovering the truth, but the South African government had changed with the abolishment of Apartheid. Many elements of the Sri Lankan government that were behind the atrocities were still in place, and so an effective TRC could not be achieved.
    In order for a smooth transitional justice process to happen, there would have to be a stronger and more transparent Sri Lankan government. The government simply lacks the political will and capacity to carry out such an important process, most likely because it does not wish to implicate itself in any crimes. The link below provides an article that states that the Sri Lankan has still not taken any action, and that even the President was seen dining with the British Queen. It seems a bit ridiculous to me that the Queen, who is the head of state of a fully functioning government, would meet with someone someone so controversial. The British government has proven that it does care about what is happening in the region, yet their public persona suggests another tone.

  9. dsekursk April 8, 2012 at 12:35 am

    Impunity is not the answer for the atrocities shown in this documentary. But as the reporter told and our subsequent research shows, any sort of legitimate justice is going to take a lot of effort and a balancing act on the line of state sovereignty. Despite the difficulties of allowing Sri Lanka the right to domestic justice, it surprises me that the international community has not reacted more strongly to demanding real justice in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government argues that any interference by the international community or further efforts at justice conducted on its own would disrupt the post-conflict transitional period. These claims have not stopped the ICC from issuing warrants for LRA leaders in Uganda. Why has there not been a push to institute some sort of judicial threat to the Sri Lankan government to force it towards the creation of better, less-biased mechanisms for justice than its LLRC Report? In the video it seems as though any strong domestic pressure has been stifled by the government, which has heavily militarized any Tamil areas and repressed any dissension against it. Therefore the ball of justice lay in the hands of the international community. A ball, we have so far seemingly dropped, by allowing the appointment of Major Gen. Shavendra Silva by U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-Moon to a top peacekeeping advisory panel. Shavendra is one of several top Sri Lankan military commanders alleged to have committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. All of which are not far from proven true by Channel 4’s footage. The documentary clearly shows that the military commanders and those in the highest positions of government, including the president and secretary of defense, are “most responsible” for the atrocities. UN and international response beyond immediate reaction to the documentary is far from what is necessary to for Sri Lankan civilians to see justice and reparations. Unfortunately, it seems from the Sri Lankan government’s LLRC, a shame of an investigatory committee, the only really hope for transitional justice will come from outside forces, none of which are doing much action beyond Channel 4’s publicity on the war crime ignorance.

  10. yuchunl April 10, 2012 at 11:32 am

    After reading Prof. Tiemessen’s past blog about the Sri Lanka in The Duck of Minerva and some additional researches. Sri Lanka seems to me to be a classic example of present authoritarian regime that UN are unable to touch or pursuance. Although Sri Lanka is part of the United Nation, but without been part of the ICC, as much as the international communities wants to prosecute the government to take responsibility of thousands death and displacement during the civil war with the LTTE, it can’t be achieve. From media reports and humanitarian groups’ efforts, it is obvious that thousands of civilians’ death were caused by the tension between the government and the LTTE. However, since the defeated of the LTTE, the government not only can deny the involvement of civilian deaths, they can also blame on the no longer existing rebel group, which its what they have been doing. That’s one of the downfall of the international justice system, without the government’s willingness to cooperate, or the government’s willingness to take fault for the wrong, it is very hard for the international justice system to do anything. Not to mention being an authoritarian government, the government can put pressure on whats been reports about the country within, and prevent information from escaping the country. I think the only way to change the situation it the change of the regime, which it might be too much to ask, but seeing that had happened to the Middle East, the rebellion of the people is a very powerful tool for a regime change, but then again might be a long time before we see it happened. Or the UN could push an sanction toward Sri Lanka, since the country it heavily relies on the UN humanitarians support for food and medicine, it would be only chance for the international communities to seek the justice they want for the people in Sri Lanka.

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