UN resolution hailed as 'crucial turning point' for victims of Sri Lanka civil war

By Karen McVeigh

Civil rights groups have welcomed a UK-led UN resolution on Sri Lanka as a “crucial turning point for justice” for victims of the country’s nearly 30-year-long conflict.

The resolution, which ramps up international monitoring and scrutiny of the country, was passed on Tuesday by the human rights council after the UN high commissioner for human rights warned Sri Lanka could rapidly descend into violence unless decisive international action was taken. Michelle Bachelet expressed alarm over “worrying trends” in the country since President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took office in 2019 and last month told the human rights council the country had “closed the door” on ending impunity for past abuses.

It also mandates the UN human rights office (OHCHR) to gather and preserve evidence for future prosecutions and make recommendations to the international community on steps they can take to deliver on justice and accountability.

Lord Ahmad speaks during the opening of the 36th session of the Human Rights Council, at the UN headquarters in Geneva, 11 September 2017.
Lord Ahmad, the UK’s minister for south Asia, said ‘too many people in Sri Lanka are still waiting for justice’. Photograph: Laurent Gillieron/EPA

Lord Ahmad, the UK’s minister for south Asia, said: “Too many people in Sri Lanka are still waiting for justice more than a decade after the civil war ended, and the human rights situation is getting worse. The adoption of a UK-led resolution at the UN human rights council sends an important signal to Sri Lanka that progress on justice, accountability and human rights cannot wait.”

Hilary Power, Amnesty International’s representative in Geneva, said it was a “significant” move.

“Years of support and encouragement to Sri Lanka to pursue justice at the national level achieved nothing. This resolution should send a clear message to perpetrators of past and current crimes that they cannot continue to act with impunity.”

Amnesty has published several reports condemning Sri Lanka’s refusal to address historic crimes and the deteriorating human rights climate.

The real impact of further monitoring and reporting will rely on other UN member states using the resolution as a basis for “concrete action”, Power said, including investigations and prosecutions under universal jurisdiction and possible referral to the international criminal court.

“We urge Sri Lanka to engage constructively with the OHCHR, to implement the recommendations of the report and to allow full and unfettered access to the country. Failing this, the human rights council may take more robust action, including the establishment of an independent accountability mechanism.”

Amnesty estimates 60,000 people disappeared during the 30-year conflict, which ended in 2009.


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Melissa Dring, director of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, described the resolution as an “important step forward”. She welcomed in particular the strengthening of OHCHR to enable the gathering of evidence of human rights violations, but said the resolution did not go far enough. Dring said: “It doesn’t quite meet the demands of the Tamil community and diaspora, who want to see Sri Lanka and individuals accused of mass atrocities to be referred to the international criminal court.”

Protest in Colombo on 1 March against the proposed resolution
Protest in Colombo on 1 March against the proposed resolution. The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly denied the findings of the recent UN report. Photograph: Chamila Karunarathne/EPA

The resolution, which was led by the UK, along with Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro and North Macedonia, follows what Bachelet described as “insurmountable barriers for victims to access justice” at the national level and the “inability and unwillingness of the government to prosecute and punish criminals”.

As the resolution was being negotiated, Sri Lanka continued to issue blanket denials and reject the findings and legitimacy of the UN report.

Rajapaksa, who was defence secretary when his brother Mahinda was president from 2005–2015, oversaw the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009. During that period, unlawful killings and forced disappearances were widespread. Since 2020 he has appointed dozens of serving or former military and intelligence personnel to key posts. Some are senior officials implicated in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final years of the civil war, according to Bachelet’s report.

Last year, the Sri Lankan government said it would no longer honour its commitments to a consensus agreed in 2015 to ensure truth, justice, reparation and an accountability mechanism for past abuses.