Washington is once again trying to put pressure on the government of Sri Lanka to commission a credible independent investigation of crimes and human rights abuses committed during the end of that country’s bloody civil war in 2009. It was a good move to send a senior American diplomat to the island nation last weekend to press the case with public officials and community leaders.
A United Nations panel reported that as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the last stages of the conflict, many of them by military shelling. But the country’s government has failed to hold officials accountable and has resisted every effort by the international community to do so. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has largely ignored two resolutions adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council calling for Sri Lanka to investigate war crimes by both security forces and the separatist Tamil Tigers. The State Department said that the assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs, Nisha Biswal, was visiting Sri Lanka in preparation for a third resolution that the United States would introduce in March.
It would be easy for the world and American officials to give up their demands for accountability given that nearly five years have passed since the end of the war. But that would be tragic and would signal to public officials that they might never have to answer for mass murder.
Nobody should be naïve about the motives or intentions of Mr. Rajapaksa. He has little interest in a thorough investigation, and his government’s systematic persecution of journalists and other critics amply demonstrates that he brooks no criticism. But it’s also true that international pressure has forced Mr. Rajapaksa to make some decisions that he would not have made on his own. For example, in September, the country held regional elections in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province that it had been resisting for years. The new provincial council recently voted to call for an independent war crimes investigation. It is important that the world stand with those Sri Lankans who have demanded a full accounting of what happened during the war.