Fading Sri Lankan Hopes for Justice Rest on U.N. Rights Council

The government, strongly tied to the military, is blocking inquiries into wartime atrocities, undermining efforts to learn the fates of thousands of missing people.

The families of the missing hold small roadside sit-ins or canvass the scarred villages of Sri Lanka’s ravaged north, hugging photos of the tens of thousands who disappeared during the country’s brutal civil war. In each place, the parents and grandparents ask the authorities a simple question: Where are our children?

The protests have continued virtually uninterrupted for more than four years, allowed by a government open to an accounting of the human toll of the war. Now, the already desperate protests seem hopeless. Sri Lanka has a new government that has turned even remembering into an act of resistance.

Since Gotabaya Rajapaksa took charge as president in late 2019, the authorities have raided news outlets, harassed and investigated journalists and activists, and dragged human rights lawyers and writers to jail and held them for months without charges, rights watchdogs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say.

Investigators looking into wartime abuses have been jailed, forced to flee the country or put under travel bans, in a clear message that the government sees accountability for past crimes as an affront.

That’s no coincidence. Sri Lanka’s new government is led by the same people who brought the three-decade war to a brutal end in 2009, then squelched discussion of it for half a decade after. During the final, brutal phase of the civil war, Mr. Rajapaksa, a former army officer, served as the defense minister.

“We don’t have hope anymore,” said Leeladevi Anandanadaraja, the secretary to the Association for the Relatives of the Enforced Disappearances, whose own 34-year-old son went missing after his arrest by the military in 2009. “That is why we think we need international interference in this issue.”

The deterioration of Sri Lanka’s human rights situation will be high on the agenda when the United Nations Human Rights Council meets on Wednesday.

The government’s critics want Sri Lanka to return to its recently abandoned commitment to cooperate with investigation of war crimes committed by all sides during the war. They also hope to curb the heavy-handedness of a government dominated by the largely Buddhist Sinhalese ethnic majority.

Human rights groups have accused Mr. Rajapaksa’s government of alienating and discriminating against ethnic and religious minorities, including the predominantly Hindu Tamils in the north. Such policies evoke some of the same tensions that fueled the civil war in the first place, when Tamil rebels responded to oppression by trying to establish a breakaway state.

The U.N. council will consider the findings of Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who in a Feb. 9 assessment expressed deep concern about the direction of the country and even floated the possibility that the case could be referred to the International Criminal Court.

“Developments over the past year have fundamentally changed the environment for advancing reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, eroded democratic checks and balances and the civic space, and permitted the resurfacing of a dangerous exclusionary and majoritarian discourse,” Ms. Bachelet wrote in the report.

In opening remarks to the Human Rights Council on Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, Dinesh Gunawardena, called the scathing U.N. report the work of “elements working against Sri Lanka” and decried it as infringing on the country’s sovereignty.

Mr. Gunawardena called on member states not to adopt a resolution against Sri Lanka based on the report, as it would result in a “loss of morale among countries engaged in the struggle against terrorism.”

“The council must hold the scales even,” he said.

For a brief period, Sri Lanka, along with Myanmar, was seen as a success story for emerging from the shadows of conflict as a blossoming democracy.

In 2015, an unlikely political coalition defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa, the sitting president whose government had crushed the Tamil insurgency in 2009, and the older brother of the current president.

The new government committed to accountability for wartime abuses, began addressing wartime grievances and opened space for civil society to emerge, putting the country on the path to healing some of the wounds of the devastating war. The families of those who had disappeared during the war began to clamor for an accounting of what had happened.

“The surveillance didn’t exactly stop completely. They did not demilitarize,” Ambika Satkunanathan, a former member of Sri Lanka’s human rights commission, said of the security structures during that period. “But because there was the space, the civil society felt emboldened to challenge it.”