Sri Lankan civil war: Government officials still unpunished

Sri Lanka – Armed conflict – War crimes

Countless people were killed, injured and raped during the decades-long Sri Lankan civil war. More than 70,000 civilians lost their lives during the Sri Lankan army’s final offensive against the rebel Tamil Tigers (LTTE) from the end of 2008 to May 2009, according to United Nations reports. Sexual and gender-based violence and arbitrary arrests by the police and military were and continue to be widespread. But no one has been held accountable for these civilian deaths. Suspected perpetrators remain in power or hold influential positions.

Since the final stage of the Sri Lankan civil war, ECCHR has been working to ensure that high-ranking military personnel and (former) members of the Sri Lankan government and security forces are prosecuted for their role in war crimes, crimes against humanity and sexual violence. ECCHR in an international network cooperates with civil society organizations, local partners, and survivors and their families.

Case

ECCHR uses various legal tools and methods to counter impunity in Sri Lanka. The principle of universal jurisdiction, for example, allows national law enforcement agencies in third countries to investigate these crimes. ECCHR supports witnesses living in Germany and filed criminal complaints with the German federal prosecutor in 2012 and 2017. The prosecutor took initial steps to look into these crimes. It is now time for Germany to intensify its investigation and take action against impunity for international crimes in Sri Lanka.

Securing international arrest warrants for high-ranking suspects is another priority – for example for Jagath Dias, former commander of the notorious Sri Lanka Army 57 Division. When Dias came as a diplomat to Berlin in 2010, ECCHR intervened with the German Foreign Office and wrote a dossier about the war crimes he allegedly committed as a military officer. His diplomatic status protected him from criminal proceedings, but he was forced to leave Germany early.

In March 2014, the United Nations set up a Commission of Experts (UN OISL) that, with ECCHR’s support, comprehensively investigated international crimes committed in Sri Lanka.

Context

From 1983 to 2009, Sri Lanka lived through a brutal civil war between the government and the LTTE. Violence increased dramatically during the final years of the war. According to the UN, the Sri Lankan army is said to have deliberately attacked civilian hospitals and food supplies, and there were repeated reports of torture, sexual violence and disappearances. Persecution of political opponents and minorities have not stopped.

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Definition

Crimes against humanity

Crimes against humanity are grave violations of international law committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population. Crimes against humanity are part of the core crimes against international law and are subject to universal jurisdiction. Crimes against humanity can include acts such as murder, extermination, enslavement and deportation.

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Insight

Sri Lanka

Ever since the final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009, issues of the criminal accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity and the ongoing sexualized violence against women have been part of ECCHR's legal case work. According to a United Nations report, more than 70,000 civilians lost their lives during the Sri Lankan army's final offensive against the rebel Tamil Tigers (LTTE) lasting from the end of 2008 until May 2009. Women and girls were repeatedly subjected to sexualized violence in the course and aftermath of the war.

To date no one has been held accountable for the civilian deaths and the suspected crimes against international law in Sri Lanka. On taking office in January 2015, President Sirisena announced plans to address the grave war crimes, stating that with the help of the international community he wished to establish an independent national judicial mechanism. Just three months later, in April 2015, he reneged on his promise. He made it clear that the mechanism would not have any power to prosecute but instead be of truth-seeking nature only. For this, he said, Sri Lanka would not need any international help.

A number of high-ranking members of the Sri Lankan army suspected of involvement in war crimes took up diplomatic posts in European and other countries after the conflict came to an end. As a result they could only face prosecution if their diplomatic immunity was revoked. ECCHR calls for greater care to be taken in future with the accreditation of Sri Lankan diplomats. When visas are being issued to diplomatic embassy staff serious efforts must be made to investigate claims that the individual may be linked to war crimes. If necessary, these efforts must include independent preliminary investigations by the relevant prosecution authorities.

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