Tamil war victims unhappy about UN report on Sri Lanka

The United Nations’ latest review on the status of Human Rights in Sri Lanka has come in for sharp criticism from war victims who are unhappy that ongoing violations have not been properly addressed.

Tamil war victims and lawmakers have expressed their displeasure that the much-awaited report by the UN rights chief had soft pedalled the very important issues of forced disappearance and continued land grabbing.

War affected Tamils say the victim centred approach that the UN advocates seems to have been abandoned by reflecting only the government viewpoint on those key issues.

The victims who had continuously rejected a domestic mechanism for accountability and pinned their hopes on the UN and the international agencies - in rendering justice- feel isolated.

'International crimes'

UN Human Rights Commissioner and former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has broadly accused Sri Lanka of ‘serious Human Rights violation’ in her report and has called for accountability for crimes committed during the war.

“It’s time now for international action to ensure justice for international crimes” the Commissioner said in her report.

The state sponsored ‘Office of the missing persons’ (OMP) lauded by her for “amplifying the voices of the families and their situation”, has been condemned as ‘useless’ by families who have been searching for their loved ones for more than a decade.

Most of the disappeared had surrendered to Sri Lankan security forces during the final stages of the war that saw a bloody end in 2009.

Yogarasa Kanakaranjini, who leads the Organisation of Forcibly Disappeared Relatives from the North and East slammed the OMP as a failed institution whose credibility has been questioned since its inception.

She says they are deeply worried that UNHRC has not sought their views before preparing the report.

The UNHRC report says, “Despite limited capacity and resources, the OMP has helped to amplify the voices of the families and their situation”.

“The statement of the commissioner is far from the truth. Is she safeguarding the Sri Lanka government’s OMP office or is she speaking on behalf of the affected people like us” Kanakarajini questions.

Nearly two years ago, relatives had handed over details of five disappeared to OMP, seeking its help to discover their fate.

The OMP is yet to find an answer.

'Goats, cows & Chicken'

Emphasising their harrowing experiences of having met 12 commissions of inquiry since the war came to a brutal end in 2009, she says none of them were credible and grossly failed in fulfilling their mandate. She says the commissions have even humiliated them.

“What do you need - goats, cows, chicken?” had been the question from successive commissions, according to Kanakaranjini.

“Why did she release such a report? Was it done knowingly or released it ignorantly?”

The High Commissioner's report on the issue of land has also evoked sharp criticism.

Quoting government statistics, High Commissioner Bachelet’s report says that nearly 90% of the lands held by the military in the North and Eastern provinces have been returned.

“..around 89.26 per cent of State lands and 92.22 per cent of private lands held in 2009 had been returned by 31 December 2019,” said the report.

Rejecting the uncritical acceptance of government figures, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Parliamentarian Sivagnanam Shritharan told JDS that over 8000 acres of land held by the armed forces is yet to be returned to the rightful owners. Cultivable land still under the military has deprived thousands of Tamil people of their livelihood, says the MP from war torn Kilinochchi.

“So, when land grabbing is happening on a large scale, UNHRC based on the information provided by the government and issuing a certificate to them doesn’t seem to be justified to us. The same thing happened in 2015 when it was said that government is showing improvements”.

The earlier government claimed substantial amount of land has been returned to the landowners. Tamils who have lost their lands to military land grabbing say none of the successive governments have been honest in returning the grabbed lands.

“So, saying that the Sri Lanka government has moved forward in rendering justice, accountability is nothing but absurd and dangerous” says the Tamil MP.

“lands are yet to be returned, political prisoners have not been released families of disappeared persons have been protesting in the streets for more than 1500 days, their livelihood is in question, people continue to be refugees within the country.”

The MP as well as the victim families were concerned that their views had not been sought for the report when UN has several offices based in the country.

While the UNHRC Commissioners’ report warns of ‘seeds of future violence’ in Sri Lanka, Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage has slammed the report and rejected calls for an international accountability mechanism for war crimes and said organisations were ‘bullying’ Sri Lanka.

“Unsubstantiated accusations against government officers are wrong. If they have something, they have to follow an internationally accepted procedure,” Admiral Colombage told journalists in Colombo.

'Ulterior motive'

The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government claims that an “ulterior motive” was behind calls for justice mechanism by people living outside the country.

However, Antonio Guterres Secretary-General of the UN answering a question following his address to the United Nations’ General Assembly told Sri Lanka that it would be difficult to move forward without accountability and reconciliation.

“To Sri Lanka- it’s important to recognize that in today’s world there is a growing concern and interest relating to that from the Human Rights dimension, legal dimension, in relation to post conflict situations, namely reconciliation and accountability”,

He also expressed hope that the government and the people in Sri Lanka will take these two needs seriously.

The UNHRC Commissioner’s report has suggested nations to review asylum measure with respect to Sri Lankan nationals to protect those facing reprisals and avoid any refoulment in cases that present real risk of torture or other serious Human Rights violation.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.