Impunity in Sri Lanka – a vicious circle of injustice
Department: Sri Lankan Team
Author: Malene Solheim
News about human rights abuse coming in from Sri Lanka has told stories that have shocked the world. A violent civil war, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and, perhaps fresher in people’s memories, the Easter bombings in the capital of Colombo in 2019 have traumatised the tiny island state southeast of India. Still, many Sri Lankans have remained in a state of unsettled trauma, frustration, and resentment against the state due to a failure to reconcile and achieve justice for those who have been hurt (Amnesty International, 2021a). Many of those who have committed crimes, including state officials, have been exempted from punishment, and those who have lost their loved ones have received neither any answers to what happened nor a cash compensation. This reflects the problem of impunity in Sri Lanka.
Impunity is a serious issue that affects many different aspects of society. Societies where impunity remains a prominent issue become breeding ground for oppression, crime, and human rights violations. Filmmaker Cullum Macrae made a documentary on this topic and claimed that Sri Lanka has reached a ‘culture of impunity’ (Context: Beyond the Headlines, 2019). The international community is now pressuring Sri Lanka to end impunity and demand justice for those who are left to suffer (Amnesty International, 2017). This report will look at the most severe cases where impunity remains a serious threat to human rights and propose the initial phases on how to combat this issue.
Examples of Impunity in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has the second-highest number of enforced disappearances globally, after Syria. Those victims of such disappearances are kidnapped by state officials directly off the street or from their own homes. The whereabouts of these victims often remain unknown, and they rarely return to their families (Amnesty International, 2017). During the last year of the civil war (2008-2009), thousands of Tamils disappeared, presumably kidnapped by Sri Lankan state officials. The government has yet to admit to the victims’ family members what happened to them and if they are still alive. The government’s denial of the disappearances, and thus the lack of effort to allow the victims to return to their families, violates fundamental human rights. Therefore, this should be of concern to the international community (Amnesty International, 2017).
The Civil War
The decade long civil war killed around 100 000, most of whom fought on the opposite side of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Al Jazeera, 2021b). In the years following the civil war, the criminal justice system has failed to reconcile and investigate killings and other criminal acts during the war (Amnesty International, 2021b). Current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa served as the defence secretary during the war’s last and most violent months (Kalanadan, 2020). Rajapaksa has been accused of failing to end, and by some, allowing violence against the Tamils. On several occasions, he denied taking any part in facilitating such human rights abuses (The Diplomat, 2022). For example, in 2020, he expressed that he “can’t bring back the dead” and that he has little regret on how he took on his duty as a defence secretary (Kalanadan, 2020, p. 1208).
The Easter Bombings of 2019
The trials for the Easter bombing started during the autumn of 2021, sparking anticipation that justice was finally in reach. However, due to administrative reasons, the trials have now been put on pause and postponed until March 2022 (WorldAkkam, 2022). The Easter Sunday bombings of 2019 was a terrorist attack that targeted three hotels and three churches, aiming at tourist destinations and Christian religious sites. This attack is regarded as the most devastating event in Sri Lanka after the civil war. Some Sri Lankans are optimistic that if justice is achieved through the trials, it might be Sri Lanka’s chance to break out of the cycle of impunity.
Impunity and International Law
Sri Lanka’s pattern of impunity violates international law and poses great threats to the human rights and wellbeing of Sri Lankans. Imposing a stricter rule of law in which all citizens meet equal punishment for equal criminal offences is a necessary step towards a safe and just life in Sri Lanka.
At the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, all states adopted the Declaration and Programme of Action. This declares that all States must bind to “the obligation to prevent, to investigate, to prosecute and to punish gross violations of human rights, such as torture and enforced disappearances” (Mattarollo, 1998. p. 83). The same document also claims that States “should abrogate legislations leading to impunity for those responsible for grave violations of human rights such as torture and prosecute such violations, thereby providing a firm basis for the rule of law” (Mattarollo, 1998, p. 83). Furthermore, the World Conference reiterated that (suspicion of) enforced disappearances must be followed up, and those in charge must be punished.
At the UN Human Rights Council, Sri Lanka promised to “establish a judicial mechanism with special counsel to investigate allegations of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law” (Amnesty International, 2021b).
Social Consequences of Impunity
The social consequences of impunity are many. Although the consequences are most notable and concrete in the aftermath of severe events such as the civil war and the Easter bombings, a culture of impunity can devastate whole communities. When the risk of punishment after committing crimes is low, the crime threshold also lowers. In Sri Lanka, the criminal system fails to investigate crime and punish those guilty or even choose who is punished and who is not. This explains why the State has predominantly kidnapped Tamils and fails to ensure justice after crime fuels the vicious cycle of crime and violence.
The issue of impunity has regularly recurred in Sri Lankan news over the past year. Family members grieve their lost ones whilst knowing that their perpetrator still lives as a free individual in society may be frustrated and angry at the malfunctioning system. Those who do not know the whereabouts of their sons and daughters are desperate for answers and filled with resentment against the State for causing suffering upon them. This, amongst other factors, caused a general resentment against the government by part of the population.
Impunity remains a pressing structural issue in Sri Lanka to this day and is, in part, the methods used for oppression against the Tamil Eelam in the north of the island. It is up to the State leaders to break out of this cycle of impunity by imposing a stricter rule of law. To this day, Sri Lankan State leaders have not obtained the legal means or dedicated enough political will to solve this issue (International Commission of Jurists, 2012). This article suggests that an excellent place to start combating this issue would be to disclose information about enforced disappearances or hold a just and fair trial following the Easter Bombings. The latter is perhaps the most realistic solution. International pressure on Sri Lanka to resolve this issue remains limited, but NGOs such as Amnesty International are focusing on this issue to some degree.
Al Jazeera (2021a Nov 23). Sri Lanka begins trials connected to 2019 Easter Sunday bombings. Retrieved 23 Nov 2021, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/23/sri-lanka-trials-2019-easter-sunday-bombings
Al Jazeera (2021b Nov 29). Sri Lankan troops break up Tamil remembrance of civil war dead. Retrieved 8 Feb 2022 from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/11/29/sri-lanka-troops-tamil-remembrance-civil-war-dead#:~:text=Grieving%20relatives%20forced%20out%20of,in%20the%20decades%2Dlong%20conflict.
Amnesty International. (2017). Enforced Disappearances. Amnesty International. Retrieved January 26, 2022, from https://www.amnesty.org/en/what-we-do/enforced-disappearances/
Amnesty International. (2021a, August 17). Impunity in Sri Lanka fuels recurrence of violence. Amnesty International. Retrieved December 16, 2021, from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/05/sri-lanka-impunity-fuels-recurrence-of-violence/
Amnesty International. (2021b). Sri Lanka 2020 archives. Amnesty International. Retrieved December 16, 2021, from https://www.amnesty.org/en/location/asia-and-the-pacific/south-asia/sri-lanka/report-sri-lanka/
Context: Beyond the Headlines. (2019). Filmmaker Callum Macrae on Sri Lanka’s “culture of impunity,” that led to the Easter Sunday bombings. YouTube. Retrieved December 16, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0OtVP8ajsUM&ab_channel=Context%3ABeyondtheHeadlines.
International Commission of Jurists. 2012. Rep. Authority without Accountability: The Crisis of Impunity in Sri Lanka. Geneva: International Commission of Jurists.
Kalanadan, S. (2020). Combating impunity in Sri Lanka. Journal of International Criminal Justice, 18(5), 1207–1228. https://doi.org/10.1093/jicj/mqaa042
Mattarollo, R. (1998). Impunity and International Law. Revue Québécoise de Droit International, 11(1), 81–94.
The Diplomat (2022 Jan 18). Sri Lanka’s President Strikes Reconciliatory Note as Debt Crisis Looms. Retrieved January 24, 2022, from https://thediplomat.com/2022/01/sri-lankas-president-strikes-reconciliatory-note-as-debt-crisis-looms/
WorldAkkam (2022). Sri Lanka: 2019 Easter Bombing Trial Postponed. Retrieved January 26, 2022, from https://worldakkam.com/sri-lanka-2019-easter-bombing-trial-postponed-news/639608/