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FeaturesNewsKey Findings on Accountability in Sri Lanka

Key Findings on Accountability in Sri Lanka

Eight students from the University of Virginia School of Law* visited Sri Lanka from January 1 to January 16, 2012 as part of the Cowan Fellows Human Rights Study Project, an independent student organization. They conducted interviews in Colombo, Kandy, and the Vanni region with Government officials, activists, NGOs, journalists, IDPs, ex-detainees and other individuals about the current status of human rights in Sri Lanka.
Based on those interviews and their own experiences in the country, the students have compiled the following findings, which reflect the dearth of effective accountability mechanisms in Sri Lanka for human rights violations committed both during and after the war.

For more information about these findings, please contact Calleigh McRaith ( )  and Clare Boronow (

1.    Sri Lankan human rights activists criticized the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) for not adequately addressing the issue of accountability for war crimes. The Government continues to deny that the Sri Lankan military committed war crimes despite numerous accusations by citizens in the no-fire zone that the military used human shields and targeted hospitals.

2.    We were told that people who testified before the LLRC were harassed by the Government afterwards. Human rights activists believe the Government is using the LLRC to deter international investigation rather than to achieve real accountability and reconciliation. Many Government officials with whom we spoke emphasized the need for Sri Lanka to focus on the future and to put the war behind it.

3.    The LLRC report appears not to have been widely disseminated in the North. Many Tamils with whom we spoke had not heard of the LLRC or its report and never had the opportunity to submit information or testify before the LLRC. The lack of awareness about the LLRC in the North limits the effectiveness of the LLRC report in fostering reconciliation.

4.    Most interviewees think the judiciary is highly politicized and cannot be used to hold the Government accountable for wrongdoings committed during or after the war. We were told that courts will rule against the Government only when the evidence is so incontrovertible as to permit no other conclusion. Many activists have stopped filing human rights cases because the pro-Government outcome is predictable.

5.    Interviewees complained that Government investigations of human rights violations, such as disappearances, assassinations, and beatings, are frequently superficial and nontransparent. Many investigations have been ongoing for years and have not resulted in a prosecution. Activists and attorneys told us that their requests for updates on the status of investigations are often rebuffed by the Government, and that the Government refuses to reveal its evidence and findings.

6.    Nearly every journalist and editor interviewed agreed that the media in Sri Lanka self-censors, leading to limited public discussion of the war and accountability. Many said that the media does not publish anything critical of President Rajapaksa, his brothers, his sons, the Ministry of Defense, or the military. The media focuses on current events and avoids references to the war.

7.    Interviewees suggested that because of media self-censorship, Government propaganda, and a desire to focus on the future rather than the past, people living in the South are unaware of the full extent of human rights violations that occurred during the war and the current conditions in the North. They are, therefore, more likely to discount the need for international monitoring.

8.    Interviews with ex-LTTE cadres, including people who were forcibly conscripted, indicate that individuals who were sent to rehabilitation on account of association with the LTTE continue to be closely monitored and harassed by military officials, despite never having been charged with any crime. These “surrenderees,” classified by the government as anyone who spent any amount of time with the LTTE, lack political representation and would benefit from the protections that international monitoring in Sri Lanka would bring. In particular, surrenderees currently have no avenue to report arbitrary detentions or harassment by the military.

9.    Many families still do not know the fate of relatives who went missing during or after the war. We spoke with several families who had last seen their relative in military custody, but the Government denies any knowledge of them. The lack of public records concerning detainees enables these disappearances, and families reported extreme delays and lack of government cooperation when they attempted to inquire about a detainee. Families of the disappeared and society at large would benefit from an independent investigation into the cases of missing persons, particularly those last seen in Government custody.

10.    Surrenderees currently in detention have been restricted in their access to counsel. Interviews with surrenderees about the process of surrendering to the military indicate that very few were informed of their legal rights, including the right to challenge their detention. Sri Lankan attorneys told us that families and attorneys are rarely notified of transfers within the prison system, causing many detainees to become “lost” for periods of time. Attorneys are not optimistic about the potential for successfully challenging arbitrary detention, as they are concerned that the courts are biased. Courts are also required to defer to the Executive branch on many decisions under the Prevention Against Terrorism Act. International accountability would help ensure that the judicial branch functions independently, and that all prisoners detained in connection with the war are given a fair and speedy hearing.

11.    We spoke with internally displaced people (IDPs) living in Government camps who were frustrated by the Government’s failure to explain why they still cannot return to their property. They have no avenues to lodge complaints challenging the delays and requesting explanations. Many believe that their land is being used by the military for private gain, and they cited reports of the construction of hotels and shops on IDP lands. Others have received reports that their homes have been looted during the military’s post-war occupation. Human rights activists also fear that the Government may be attempting to destroy evidence of war crimes committed in those areas.

12.    The North is heavily militarized, with many armed checkpoints where people are required to provide their name, travel destination and the purpose of their visit. Interviewees said that the Army frequently breaks up meetings and assemblies in the North. We experienced this ourselves. Plain clothes officers were present at a memorial service we attended commemorating a human rights activist killed in the early stages of the war, and they questioned all of the speakers and organizers immediately after the memorial. The heavy militarization in the North restricts citizens’ freedom of association and speech, making it difficult if not impossible to share information and to gather to protest or otherwise express their views to the Government.

13.    Interviewees frequently characterized the Rajapaksa administration as a “military dictatorship.” They said that Sri Lanka is not a democracy because the president and his brothers control the Government, the military, and the economy. Many interviewees believe that human rights abuses have been on the rise since the end of the war due to the increased militarization of the South and the lack of an effective opposition within the Government to give voice to Tamil complaints. Sri Lanka needs mechanisms to hold individuals in and around the Government accountable for abuses committed both during the war and up to the present day.

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