The Race to Consolidate Power and Stave Off Disaster
Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war ended in a bloodbath in May 2009. Government forces decisively defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam at the cost of tens of thousands of civilian lives. According to credible allegations, the Sri Lankan military intentionally shelled hospitals as well as areas it had designated safe “No Fire Zones.” Further evidence supports claims of torture, sexual assault, and the extrajudicial execution of combatants. Yet 11 years after these atrocities, no justice has been served. Despite sustained demands from the Tamil community, Sri Lanka’s leaders have steadfastly refused to investigate these grisly events or prosecute their perpetrators.
“We will not betray you to the world,” then President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised Sri Lanka’s armed forces in 2011. True to his word, he spent the rest of his presidential term openly flouting international pressure for justice. Western officials celebrated in 2015 when a shock electoral result ousted Rajapaksa, hoping that a change in leadership would encourage the country to reckon with the crimes at the end of the civil war. It didn’t. Although the new government—led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe—promised the UN Human Rights Council that it would pursue truth and justice for mass atrocities, vet the security sector, and pass a number of legal reforms, ultimately it did almost none of this.
Today, the island is under Rajapaksa rule once more. In November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former defense secretary who presided over the last phase of the civil war, was elected to the presidency and appointed his brother Mahinda as prime minister. Following parliamentary elections in August, the brothers’ party, Sri Lanka People’s Front, has a supermajority in Parliament, giving them the ability to amend the constitution and remove restraints on presidential powers.
The return of the Rajapaksas to office with an unassailable mandate for their Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist politics and militaristic governing style spells disaster for human rights in Sri Lanka. It also means the dim hope that the perpetrators of past atrocities would be held to account has now all but faded. And while the lion’s share of responsibility for this state of affairs rests with the Rajapaksas and their supporters, the international community is not blameless. In its rush to celebrate Sirisena’s election as the dawn of a new democratic era in Sri Lanka, international actors facilitated the entrenchment of impunity and squandered a chance to protect vulnerable people.
Following Mahinda’s electoral defeat in 2015, many in the international community proceeded as if Sri Lanka had experienced a full-fledged democratic transition, an approach epitomized by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power’s baffling description in 2016 of Sri Lanka as a “global champion of human rights and democratic accountability.” The United States and other Western countries increased military assistance to Sri Lanka’s wholly unvetted security sector. The European Union restored a preferential trade tariff in 2017, despite Sri Lanka’s failure to meet previously imposed human rights conditions, such as the repeal of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act. Sri Lanka even received multiple honors for its contributions to UN peacekeeping operations despite evidence that security sector personnel implicated in wartime abuses were being deployed to missions in Haiti, Lebanon, Mali, South Sudan, and Darfur.
In March 2017, the United States, the United Kingdom, and others supported Sri Lanka’s request for an extension from the UN Human Rights Council for the reforms it had promised, even though Colombo had done nothing to deliver. And, indeed, there were clear indications that the Sirisena government never had any intention of fulfilling these obligations. Beginning in 2015, both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe made repeated statements to domestic audiences insisting that they would never allow investigations or prosecutions of the country’s “war heroes.”
International actors facilitated the entrenchment of impunity in Sri Lanka.
U.S. officials clung to the line that Sri Lanka needed “time and space” to move on from its past. If the Sirisena administration moved too fast, they said, it might alienate its core Sinhala-Buddhist constituency. Ironically, this approach was rooted in Washington’s fear that putting pressure on Sri Lanka’s new government would return the Rajapaksas to power—a prospect alarming not only for its implications for peace and stability on the island but also for wider geopolitics, given the Rajapaksas’ firm links with China.
U.S. diplomats were absolutely correct that the Sirisena government had only a precarious hold on power and that pursuing accountability for war crimes was deeply unpopular. But their decision to refrain from putting pressure on the Sri Lankan government—assuming that the new government would seek justice for atrocities only after it managed to consolidate power—was a serious miscalculation.
Anyone looking closely would have seen that those implicated in atrocities weren’t actually out of power. Mahinda, far from being sidelined following his ouster, rejoined Parliament and then successfully launched a new political party with his loyalists. Sarath Fonseka, the former army commander who had fallen out with the Rajapaksas, was appointed field marshal and served as a member of Parliament despite his very public admission that he had committed war crimes in 2009 on Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s orders. His former subordinate, Shavendra Silva, himself credibly accused of ordering atrocities, was promoted first to army chief of staff and then to commander of the army. Sisira Mendis, who ran a notorious torture center, was appointed chief of national intelligence and, remarkably, represented Sri Lanka at a session of the UN Committee Against Torture in 2016.
International actors, including the United States, interpreted these developments as simply inadequate progress and offered carrots to Sri Lanka to take small steps in the direction of good governance and democratization. But what they should have seen instead was the active construction of impunity.
Accused war criminals exercised their continued influence to block attempts to account for the abuses of the past. Mahinda used his platform as a prominent opposition member in Parliament to warn against investigating war crimes and repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Unvetted members of the security forces continued to operate vast intelligence networks, surveilling and harassing Tamil activists. Military control of the former war zone in the northeast of the country allowed security forces to destroy evidence of atrocities and intimidate witnesses. In 2017, the UN special rapporteur on torture noted numerous reports of Sri Lanka’s notorious “white van abductions”—when plainclothes officers force civilians into unmarked vehicles—along with custodial torture and a pervasive climate of fear that dissuaded victims from coming forward.
Even as this was happening, most international actors stressed top-line transitional justice agenda items, such as criminal trials and the removal of high-level perpetrators from office. Disrupting the construction of impunity actually required more granular measures. International actors should have tried to obstruct the passage of legislation that constrained civil society, protested the use of state media to shape public attitudes in favor of impunity, encouraged the dismantling of intelligence networks at the ground level, and supported information security training for human rights workers.
These are all measures that would have helped the activists doing the hard work of trying to shift domestic attitudes about accountability and granted them some protection in what was always going to be a dark and dangerous time on the island. The last nine months have seen the rapid militarization of the government, with functions ranging from the response to the COVID-19 pandemic to programs of archaeological preservation removed from civilian control. The proposed 20th amendment to the constitution will grant Gotabaya Rajapaksa essentially unfettered powers as president.
In the Sinhalese-majority south of the island, these changes have been felt in the arrests of civil society actors, the self-censorship of dissenting voices, and the brazen display of images and slogans associated with militant Sinhala-Buddhist supremacy. In the northeast, escalating prohibitions on memorializing those lost in the war and the harassment of families of the disappeared compound the climate of militarization and surveillance that the Tamil community has endured since the end of the war.
Since Gotabaya was elected to the presidency in November 2019, Sri Lanka has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council resolution under which the previous government committed itself to seek justice. It has threatened to leave any international organization that “targets our country and our war heroes.” In March, Rajapaksa pardoned one of the very few Sri Lankan soldiers ever prosecuted for wartime offenses, a man who was convicted of massacring eight Tamil civilians in 2000. These developments are devastating, but they were foreseeable. And the failure of international actors to take meaningful action has only pushed justice further out of the reach of the victims of atrocities in Sri Lanka.