(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series on the likely spotlight to be placed on allegations of war crimes and other abuses in Sri Lanka during the next session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, beginning Feb. 22. The series includes voices from former U.N. officials, international NGOs, human rights litigators, and researchers. The full list will appear, as installments are published, at the end of the first article, Spotlight on Sri Lanka as UN Human Rights Council Prepares Next Session.)
As member States consider a resolution on Sri Lanka at the upcoming United Nations Human Rights Council session, it is an important moment for the international community to reflect on the violations and suffering behind the persistent calls for truth and accountability. There is no shortage of information that points to the numerous potential war crimes and crimes against humanity that occurred during the country’s quarter century of violent conflict. A project my organization undertook beginning in 2017 helps to organize and share the published reports that detail the varied and violent incidents that took place.
While violations have continued to occur following the official end of hostilities in May 2009, the conflict, by international humanitarian law standards, is generally considered to have taken place from 1983 to 2009, with some periods of ceasefire in between.
All parties committed violations during the war: the government of Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and various paramilitary groups. There were tens of thousands of disappearances, with the missing still unaccounted for; countless cases of children being abducted on the way to school, at bus stops, and from their homes, and forcibly recruited; village raids that were accompanied by property destruction, torture, and sexual violence; people being tortured and subject to sexual violence while detained; suicide attacks occurring virtually throughout the country; assassinations and other targeted killings; people killed by mines while going about their daily routines; scores of people killed in shelling attacks, particularly in the final stages of the conflict; thousands of people displaced; and humanitarian assistance denied.
Our team at the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) has spent several years collecting and reviewing publicly available news articles, NGO reports, Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense press releases, reports of various commissions and investigations, and reports and press releases from the International Committee of the Red Cross, and multilateral organizations. The team used these open-source documents to identify alleged violations and enter them on a detailed conflict map.
A Compelling Case
PIAC created this accounting of the conflict primarily for three reasons: seeing the reported violations laid out, their geographical extent and the multiple types of violations makes a compelling case for the need for truth and accountability processes to be pursued; mapping the violations and identifying the patterns serves as an initial roadmap for people working on transitional justice initiatives; and organizing and preserving reports and articles provides a valuable historical record for the future.
Our conflict-mapping report, Tides of Violence, provides a sample of the incidents identified in our research. To be included, an article had to refer to an incident that could be considered a conflict-related human rights violation or an international humanitarian law violation. An incident was only recorded by the team if the specific report or article contained enough detail to allow for further investigation. The work only includes documents from organizations with a credible and reliable reputation for reporting on the particular subject matter they were covering. Sources like the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense were included, because although the government’s armed forces were a party to the conflict and therefore partial, they had the resources and access to report information that was not found elsewhere.
The report presents the data as it is published, without privileging information from particular sources or particular versions of events. Every incident is footnoted so users can undertake their own follow-up research. Where multiple sources provide different details on an incident, the report seeks to show that difference. For example, where one source said 8 people were killed and another said 10, the incident will say, 8 or 10 people killed. Where a source document reports an alleged perpetrator, or groups connected with a particular incident, that information is included, with the source of the accusation.
Our work demonstrates and reinforces the patterns of violations that have led to calls for meaningful and credible truth and accountability processes. For example, it shows that attacks on public transport and in public places happened frequently, terrorizing the population; that the shelling in the final stages was so relentless it is almost impossible to differentiate one attack from the next; and that in some periods of the conflict, killings of individuals and disappearances happened at an alarmingly high rate, sometimes almost daily or weekly.
While certain cases, time periods, and issues have been addressed by inquiries, some of those probes have had questionable legitimacy – for example see here, here, and here. Judicial proceedings have either not progressed or yielded questionable results — for example, see here and here. There have been no systematic war-related prosecutions, and many cases remain disputed, including high-profile ones.
Violations Remain Largely Unaddressed
The scale and contested nature of violations reinforces the need for credible truth and accountability processes with international involvement to address the instability, violence, and suffering caused by the war. In the almost 12 years since the conflict ended, alleged violations of human rights and international law remain largely unaddressed, as do the underlying tensions that contributed to the conflict.
The report shows the patterns of violations, the peaks and troughs of violence, how widespread the conflict was and how deeply affected by the fighting people were, virtually across the entire country. These accounts are invaluable for understanding the contours of the conflict, particularly while the twin imperatives of truth and accountability have not yet been addressed.
As with any conflict-mapping work, the aim in this case was not to make definitive findings, suggest causes, or attribute blame. This necessarily falls to the formal, credible mechanisms to investigate further and find the more detailed, nuanced truth. Our role in this latest project has been to produce a report that can be used by others to structure their work, and to identify what information already exists on the public record on a given incident. Furthermore, we do not include any confidential documentation in our report and this, combined with the intentionally brief incident descriptions, means that any report like this does not reflect the suffering of victims or the emotion of individual accounts. Hopefully, credible truth-telling processes and justice initiatives will fulfill the function of capturing and addressing the experience of victims.
The Tides of Violence report is a starting point to demonstrate the extent, range and widespread impact of the conflict on Sri Lankan society. As the Human Rights Council meets, the report is a useful reminder for foreign state officials of the gravity of what happened during the conflict. It is also a reminder for Sri Lankan civil society that their suffering and their past has not been forgotten. It highlights why truth and accountability mechanisms are so important. The Human Rights Council must pass a resolution that calls for truth and accountability; otherwise, as the high commissioner recently reinforced, the violations risk being repeated.
IMAGE: Patmanathan Kokilavani holds a photo of her two children at a protest site for loved ones of the disappeared on May 13, 2019 in Mullaitivu, Sri Lanka. Her children, Patmanthan Piratheepan and Patmanathan Tharsika, were separated in the chaos of a bombing on May 17, 2009. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)