Transitional (in)justice in Sri Lanka?

Transitional (in)justice in Sri Lanka?

December 24, 2016 0 By WFTV

After years of international pressure, the Sri Lankan government is finally setting up a transitional justice framework on justice, peace and accountability.

The newly established transitional justice apparatus by the new Sri Lankan government is gaining momentum in the post-war context on addressing the human rights violations that took place during the 26-year long civil war. The mechanism was set up in 2015 when the government made the announcement at the 30th United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session.

According to the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), transitional justice is defined as a pair of judicial and non-judicial methods that provide compensation to war victims. Transitional justice is necessary for societies to move away from the conflict towards accountability and provide redress to victims. ICTJ identifies four key aspects of transitional justice: truth commissions, criminal prosecution, reparations and institutional reform.

Although the four key characteristics identified by ICTJ are not standardised or a one-size- fits-all formula, it is a benchmark for the Sri Lankan government on what needs to be covered in their newly set up transitional justice mechanism.

In Sri Lanka, the civil war turned increasingly brutal and violent during the last few months. There are allegations that war crimes were committed by both the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) where civilians were used as shields and attacks were orchestrated on big crowds. Many locals fled to third countries after being displaced from their villages during the last few weeks of the civil war.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights launched the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) when the war ended in 2009 to probe into the human rights violations such as unlawful killings, forced disappearances, gender-based violence, unlawful detention and kidnappings.

More reports have been published by other international organisations such as the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch and Freedom from Torture after similar investigations were conducted. The new report by ITJP titled Forgotten: Sri Lanka’s exiled victims documented the grave violations committed by members of the security forces.

The new government under the helm of incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena has said that it is committed to seek national reconciliation with the engagement of the UN and other international organisations. Sirisena’s unexpected victory in 2015 brought hope that the new transitional justice framework will achieve its objectives. The new transitional justice framework will need to be victim-centered in order to seek justice and accountability on wartime allegations.

War survivors are stakeholders in the transitional justice process whose testimonies and verdicts are imperative. However, many have expressed their skepticism whether the new transitional justice mechanism will provide redress and reparation.

They want to know what happened to their family members who went missing. In addition, they want their land back that was given to members of the security forces during the war.

Raveendran Jenatha was one of the thousands of civilians who were caught in the middle of the last stages of the war in which she lost her legs and one of her eyes. She was quoted in an online article on CNN that she does not have a future due to what happened to her in the past.

The government has also yet to release civilians who were arrested during the war. In August 2016, officials visited a mother to inform her that her son who was taken during the war would be released after she signed some documents. After a few days, the same officials told her not to mention about what happened during the war. Her son has still not been released.

During the war, the Prevention of Terrorist Act (PTA) was used without discretion where many Tamil civilians became prime targets. The police arrested a number of Tamil women under the PTA. Two of such women were Sivamany Sinnathamby and Wijikala Nanthakumar who were arrested and taken into custody in 2001. During the custody, they were raped and tortured by the officials and compelled to sign confessions that they were members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

When the two women were initially examined by the Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) there was no evidence of rape found. After a public outcry, they were re-examined where the results showed signs of rape. There were speculations that no real medical examination was taken during the first time. The investigation led to three police men and nine navy officials being identified as the perpetrators.

These are two rare cases where the perpetrators were brought to justice after a re-examination. Many other sexual crimes are yet to be addressed.

Each country has a different political setup. In Sri Lanka, transitional justice will not only take time but is anticipated to be a challenging process. War survivors need to come together to determine what type of transitional justice mechanism they want that will address the past and how they can progress for the future.

Blog Post written by: Roshni – Kapur she can be reached at: kapur.roshni@gmail.com