Six years ago Canada was among a group of countries that took the lead to adopt a crucial United Nations resolution to promote reconciliation and justice after decades of war and persecution in Sri Lanka.
The human rights situation on the island is again deteriorating, and it is crucial for Canada to step up to take diplomatic action once more. In a hard hitting new report, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, says that “Sri Lanka remains in a state of denial about the past,” and the “current trajectory sets the scene for the recurrence of the policies and practices that gave rise to grave human rights violations.” She called for member states to take urgent action.
Tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the civil war between government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which ended in 2009. Both sides committed numerous war crimes, particularly in the final months of the war. At that time Mahinda Rajapaksa was president, and his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was the defence secretary. They oversaw armed forces that repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled civilians and summarily executed captured LTTE fighters. Critics of the government and suspected LTTE supporters were murdered, tortured, and “disappeared” in white vans, abuses that continued even after the fighting ended. When the Rajapaksas finally lost power in the 2015 presidential election, there seemed to be an opening for change.
Canada is a member of a core group of countries at the UN Human Rights Council that supported a landmark resolution in 2015. The resolution offered victims of all communities in Sri Lanka the hope of truth, justice, and reconciliation, and upheld the principle of accountability for the most serious international crimes. Canada’s role was welcomed by victims’ groups, and there were significant improvements in human rights, particularly freedom of expression. The shadow of fear and repression was lifted.
Now fear has returned. In November 2019 Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president and he appointed his brother, Mahinda, prime minister. In a recent speech to celebrate his first year in office, President Rajapaksa made clear what his government is all about.