Reflections on UN Human Rights Council Report on alleged war crimes committed in the last phases of Sri Lanka’s civil war

Diane de Silva, ACFID Sri Lanka Working Group

11 Oct, 2015

On September 16, 2015 the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its long anticipated report on Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka.

Covering the period from 2002 to 2011, it presents evidence of violations by government forces, pro-government paramilitaries and separatist Tamil Tigers (LTTE) “that are among the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole”. These include indiscriminate shelling, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence, recruitment of children and the denial of humanitarian assistance.  Noting the weakness of the Sri Lankan criminal justice system, it argues “a purely domestic court procedure will have no chance of overcoming widespread and justifiable suspicions fuelled by decades of violations, malpractice and broken promises”. So it recommends establishment of a “hybrid special court, integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators”. The International Crisis Group (ICG) supports this to win the trust of survivors and witnesses whose testimony will be crucial.

President Sirisena, elected in January, and the newly-formed, multi-party national unity government supporting him, unlike the aggressively nationalist and authoritarian stance taken by the former government, claim a commitment to address the disputed legacy of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war, but preferring a domestic judicial probe, possibly drawing on UN resources and expertise.  

Several possible fears, anxieties and tensions undergird this government approach. An international investigation will bring with it such rigour, accountability and transparency which could show up Sri Lanka’s weaknesses and cause the government to lose credibility amongst the public and also stir resistance from more extreme factions within the parliament that could even fracture the government. More importantly there are fears among politicians and the Sinhalese majority community that an international investigation could implicate, name, shame and even prosecute for war crimes and crimes against humanity well-known politicians and armed forces members. It is argued that to tackling such sensitive possibilities will have greater acceptance by the public if done domestically, drawing on locally-derived evidence.

Linked to this is the suspicion of “devolution of power”, strongly feared by many as a basis to eventually lead to a separate state.  Also, parts of the government and society see the UN investigation as instigated particularly by the influence of the Tamil diaspora and international human rights groups and NGOs that wish to discredit the country and its political machinery for crimes committed against minority groups in Sri Lanka.     

What is the best way forward?

The political stage domestically and within the international community is extremely charged, fluid and complex.  Sri Lanka is very much at a “crossroad” and to make imprudent decisions would be myopic in the long term for a country that has been through so much.  According to the National Peace Council’s Jehan Perera the mood of the polity seems to have changed , with the Sri Lankan people’s response to this UN report being much more moderate and muted, without the display of ethno-nationalistic passion that galvanized them into the political action  seen when the predecessor UN report, the so-called Darusman Report, on war crimes was published in 2011. Perera argues  there is more of a softening and convergence of views within the populace with less extreme elements within it.  Diplomatically, with the efforts made by the newly elected government to reach out to the international community and re-build relationships a “space” seems to have been opened for more open dialogue and collaboration. More traditional investors, donors and INGOs are seeking to re-enter Sri Lanka and to renew their relationships with the country.  These are all good signs and need to be encouraged. A backlash caused by the investigation could again shrink the humanitarian space.

Within this backdrop, it is believed that the UN and international community needs to give the newly elected government of Sri Lanka adequate time and a chance to prove themselves.  My recommendation is that the UN negotiates with the government of Sri Lanka a timeframe which could span different levels.  At the first level, the UN provides input, technical expertise and helps build capacity of the Sri Lankan judicial systems, especially the “witness protection systems”, within Sri Lanka’s suggested domestic mechanism and  after an in-depth process of review and scrutiny, the UN could pursue a managed transition to its own more rigorous hybrid mechanism if needed.       


  1. Jehan Perera, National Peace Council of Sri Lanka , “Hybrid Mechanism not a first option with new government”, National Peace Council, Sept 21, 2015.
  2. International Crisis Group Report; Brussels, 18 Sept 2015, “Statement on the UN Sri Lanka Investigation Report”.
  • Diane de Silva, ACFID Sri Lanka Working Group
    Diane de Silva, ACFID Sri Lanka Working Group

    Diane de Silva is a humanitarian aid professional with significant experience in international aid and development and high level expertise in program design, monitoring and evaluation.  Working for World Vision Australia she managed programs in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.  In 2014 she conducted the Women and International Development Studies Course at Victoria University. 

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