Global Human Rights Defence

Impunity in Sri Lanka – a vicious circle of injustice
Mothers demanding justice after the enforced disappearances of their children. Source: Tamil Guardian, September, 10 2020.

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

 

Enforced Disappearances 

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.

 

Conclusion

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.

References 

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/ 

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Kenza Mena
Team Coordinator -China

Kenza Mena has expertise in international criminal law since she is currently pursuing a last-year Master’s degree in International Criminal Justice at Paris II Panthéon-Assas and obtained with honors cum laude an LLM in International and Transnational Criminal Law from the University of Amsterdam. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in French and Anglo-American law. 

Since September 2021, she has been the coordinator of Team China at GHRD, a country where violations of human rights, even international crimes, are frequently perpetrated by representatives of the State. Within Team China, awareness is also raised on discrimination that Chinese women and minorities in the country and, more generally, Chinese people around the world are facing.

Kenza believes that the primary key step to tackle atrocities perpetrated around the world is advocacy and promotion of human rights.

Aimilina Sarafi
Pakistan Coordinator

Aimilina Sarafi holds a Bachelor’s degree cum laude in International Relations and Organisations from Leiden University and is currently pursuing a Double Legal Master’s degree (LLM) in Public International Law and International Criminal Law at the University of Amsterdam.
She is an active advocate for the human rights of all peoples in her community and is passionate about creating a better world for future generations. Aimilina is the coordinator for the GHRD team of Pakistan, in which human rights violations of minority communities in Pakistan are investigated and legally evaluated based on international human rights legal standards.
Her team is working on raising awareness on the plight of minority communities such as women, children, religious and ethnic minorities within Pakistan.

Lukas Mitidieri
Coordinator & Head Researcher- Bangladesh

Lucas Mitidieri is currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree in International Relations at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). As the GHRD Bangladesh Team Coordinator, he advocates for human rights and monitors violations across all minorities and marginalized groups in Bangladesh. Lucas believes that the fight for International Human Rights is the key to a world with better social justice and greater equality.

Nicole Hutchinson
Editorial Team Lead

Nicole has an MSc in International Development Studies with a focus on migration. She is passionate about promoting human rights and fighting poverty through advocacy and empowering human choice. Nicole believes that even the simplest social justice efforts, when properly nurtured, can bring about radical and positive change worldwide.

Gabriela Johannen
Coordinator & Head Researcher – India

Gabriela Johannen is a lawyer admitted to the German bar and holds extensive knowledge in the fields of human rights, refugee law, and international law. After working for various courts and law firms in her home country, she decided to obtain an LL.M. degree from Utrecht University where she studied Public International Law with a special focus on Human Rights. Additionally, while working as a pro-bono legal advisor for refugees, she expanded her knowledge in the fields of refugee law and migration.

Gabriela is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD India, a country, she has had a personal connection with since childhood. Her primary focus is to raise awareness for the severe human rights violations against minorities and marginalized groups that continue to occur on a daily basis in India. By emphasizing the happenings and educating the general public, she hopes to create a better world for future generations.

João Victor
Coordinator & Head Researcher – International Justice

João Victor is a young Brazilian lawyer who leads our team of International Justice and Human Rights. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and possesses over 5 years of experience in dealing with Human Rights and International Law issues both in Brazil and internationally, including the protection of refugees’ rights and the strengthening of accountability measures against torture crimes.

João has an extensive research engagement with subjects related to International Justice in general, and more specifically with the study of the jurisprudence of Human Rights Courts regarding the rise of populist and anti-terrorist measures taken by national governments. He is also interested in the different impacts that new technologies may provoke on the maintenance of Human Rights online, and how enforcing the due diligence rules among private technology companies might secure these rights against gross Human Rights violations.

Célinne Bodinger
Environment and Human Rights Coordinator

As the Environment and Human Rights Coordinator, Célinne is passionate about the health of our planet and every life on it.

Angela Roncetti
Team Coordinator and Head Researcher- South America

Angela holds a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) from Vitória Law School (FDV) in Brazil. Her research combines more than five years of experience conducting debates and studies on the rights of homeless people, the elderly, children, and refugees. Besides that, she also volunteers in a social project called Sou Diferente (I am Different in English), where she coordinates and takes part in actions aimed at the assistance and the emancipation of vulnerable groups in the cities of the metropolitan area of Espírito Santo state (Brazil).

Lina Borchardt
Team Head (Promotions)
(Europe)

She is currently heading the Promotions Team and University Chapter of Global Human Rights Defence. Her background is the one of European and International Law, which I am studying in The Hague. She has previously gained experience at Women´s Rights organizations in Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey over the past years.
She has been working for Global Human Rights Defence in the Netherlands since 2020. Her focus now is concentrated on the Human Rights and Minorities Film Festival and the cooperation of GHRD with students across the country.

Pedro Ivo Oliveira
Team Coordinator and Researcher
(Africa)

Pedro holds an extensive background in Human Rights, especially in Global Health, LGBTQ+ issues, and HIV and AIDS. He is currently finishing his Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and Affairs at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Moreover, he successfully attended the Bilingual Summer School in Human Rights Education promoted by the Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Association of Universities of the Montevideo Group. Besides, Pedro Ivo has a diversified professional background, collecting experiences in many NGOs and projects.

With outstanding leadership abilities, in 2021, Pedro Ivo was the Secretary-General of the 22nd edition of the biggest UN Model in Latin America: the MINIONU. Fluent in Portuguese, English, and Spanish, Pedro Ivo is the Team Coordinator and Head Researcher of the Team Africa at Global Human Rights Defence. Hence, his focus is to empower his team from many parts of the world about the Human Rights Situation in the African continent, meanwhile having a humanized approach.

Alessandro Cosmo
GHRD Youth Ambassador
(European Union)

Alessandro Cosmo obtained his B.A. with Honors from Leiden University College where he studied International Law with a minor in Social and Business Entrepreneurship. He is currently pursuing an LL.M. in Public International Law at Utrecht University with a specialization in Conflict and Security. 
As GHRD’s E.U. Youth Ambassador, Alessandro’s two main focuses are to broaden the Defence’s reach within E.U. institutions and political parties, as well as mediate relations between human rights organizations abroad seeking European funding. 
Alessandro believes that human rights advocacy requires grass-roots initiatives where victims’ voices are amplified and not paraphrased or spoken for. He will therefore act on this agenda when representing Global Human Rights Defence domestically and abroad

Veronica Delgado
Team Coordinator and Researcher- Japan, Sri Lanka & Tibet

Veronica is a Colombian lawyer who leads our team of Japan, Sri Lanka and Tibet. She holds a master’s degree in Public International Law from Utrecht University. She has experience in Colombian law firms. Here she represented clients before constitutional courts. She also outlined legal concepts to state entities such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ombudsman’s Office on international law issues.

Veronica has an extensive research background with subjects related to public international law. She worked as an assistant researcher for more than two years for the Externado University of Colombia. Here she undertook in-depth research on constitutional, business, and human rights law issues. She was involved with consultancy services with the Colombian Army regarding transitional justice. 

Wiktoria Walczyk
Coordinator & Head Researcher (Nepal & Indonesia)

Wiktoria Walczyk has joined GHRD in June 2020 as a legal intern. She is currently coordinator and head researcher of Team Nepal and Indonesia. She has an extensive legal knowledge concerning international human rights and is passionate about children’s and minorities’ rights. Wiktoria has obtained her LL.B. in International & European Law and she specialised in Public International Law & Human Rights at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. Moreover, she is pursuing her LL.M. in International & European Law and focusing on Modern Human Rights Law specialisation at the University of Wroclaw in Poland. In order to gain an essential legal experience, Wiktoria has also joined Credit Suisse’s 2021 General Counsel Graduate First Program where she is conducting her legal training and discovering the banking world. She would like to make a significant impact when it comes to the protection of fundamental human rights around the world, especially with regard to child labour. 

Fairuz Sewbaks
Coordinator and Head Researcher
(Africa)​

Fairuz Sewbaks holds extensive legal knowledge regarding international human rights, with a specific focus on human rights dealings taking place in continental Africa. She holds a bachelor’s degree from The Hague University in public international law and international human rights and successfully followed advanced human rights courses at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. She furthermore participated in the Istanbul Summer School where she was educated about the role of epidemics and pandemics in light of human rights.

 

Fairuz is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD Africa. Her primary focus is to establish and coordinate long-term research projects regarding the differentiating human rights dealings of vulnerable and marginalized groups in continental Africa, as well as conducting individual research projects.

Priya Lachmansingh
Coordinator and Head Researcher, Political Advisor
(Asia & America)

Priya Lachmansingh is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in International & European
Law at the Hague University of Applied Science.
As GHRD’s Asia & America human rights coordinator and GHRD Political Advisor, Priya’s
prominent focus is to highlight human rights violations targeted against minority and
marginalized groups in Asia and America and to broaden GHRD reach within Dutch political
parties and as well seek domestic funding.

Jasmann Chatwal
Team Coordinator & Head Coordinator: North America

Jasmann is a political science student at Leiden University who joined GHRD in May 2021 as an intern in team Pakistan. Now, she is the team coordinator for North America and is responsible for coordinating the documentation of human rights violations in USA, Canada, and America.