On March 23, 2021, the United Nations Council voted to open an inquiry into Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes resulting from the three decades civil war.
Of the 47-member council, 22 countries voted in favor, 11 opposed, and 14 abstained. Britain and Canada initially brought this resolution into light to address the atrocities and human rights abuse in Sri Lanka following the civil war. The resolution will set up a team of investigators to gather and preserve evidence of war crimes. The U.N. hopes to hold the Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lankan guerrilla group, and security forces accountable for their alleged involvement in war crimes. This resolution was in response to a U.N. report by the U.N. human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, who urged the international community to seek justice for Sri Lanka and hold criminals accountable.
Background of Sri Lanka’s Civil War
The war can be traced back to British colonialism in the region. The British handed the Tamil minority most of the political power after they left the region. The minority rule caused conflict among the Sinhalese-dominated population. Tension arose between the two groups leading to a civil war. The 30-year civil war started in 1983. It involved a struggle for dominance between the insurgent group called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government. The LTTE wanted a separate state for the Tamil because the Sinhalese-dominated government engaged in systemic discrimination against the Tamil minority.
Violence erupted in intermittent periods between 1956 and 1980s. Throughout the period, state-sponsored mobs carried violent attacks such as massacres that led to thousands of lives lost. The war ended in 2009, with the government defeating the LTTE.
Sri Lanka remains unstable even after the war. The Sri Lankan government announced that it strongly opposes the investigation into war crimes. According to a New York Times reporting, the president of Sri Lanka and his administration furiously advocated against this investigation into war crimes.
While the Sri Lanka government may be against this resolution, other western nations such as the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. are strong advocates. This resolution was part of the 46th Session of the U.N. Human Rights Council that the U.S. participated in after nearly two years of absence to address global human rights situations. During the Session, the U.S. also supported resolutions to address human rights conditions in Belarus, Burma, Burundi, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, South Sudan, and Yemen.
Commissions of Inquiry sometimes lead to individual accountability. Because Sri Lanka does not participate in the International Criminal Court, the ICC does not have jurisdiction unless the U.N. Security Council refers the case. This is unlikely. Nevertheless, some countries provide for universal jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The April issue of the IELR will have a more comprehensive discussion of this matter.