By Meenakshi Ganguly.
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — There was satisfaction, and even glee, among many Sri Lankans when Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the widely unpopular president, fled the country by military jet in the dead of the night on July 13, following months of protests. Apparently fearing arrest while he searched for a safe haven, he didn’t resign until late the following day.
Now, however, Rajapaksa no longer has sovereign immunity from prosecution for grave international crimes in which he is implicated, including war crimes and the alleged murder, torture and enforced disappearance of his critics and opponents, or for the grand corruption that flourished under his family’s rule.
A woman whose son was “disappeared” in 2009 told Human Rights Watch in 2020 that since Rajapaksa’s election, the police had repeatedly visited her. “These are children who were taken by white vans from our houses or who surrendered [to the army]. … I want to know what happened to my son — whether he is dead or alive, and if he is not alive, what happened to him and who did it,” she said.
Now Rajapaksa has fled to Singapore via the Maldives. He is believed to be seeking a final destination where he will be safe from arrest and prosecution.
He should not succeed. Judicial authorities where laws permit should investigate him under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows for the prosecution of serious international crimes even if they were not committed on the country’s territory. Universal jurisdiction cases are an increasingly important part of international efforts to provide justice to victims and their families who have nowhere else to turn.
Over several decades, successive Sri Lankan governments have not provided victims of grave abuses with genuine avenues for justice. There is little reason to believe the next administration — led by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was backed by the now-deposed Rajapaksa family — will be better in this regard, considering Wickremesinghe’s prompt crackdown on the protesters. It’s therefore critical for foreign governments to pick up the slack where possible. Rajapaksa’s departure from Sri Lanka might have opened new possibilities for justice.
Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.