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

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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.”

But the next four years were marked by messy infighting within the coalition, which paralyzed the government. That discord contributed to a lapse of security that allowed a major terrorist attack on Easter Sunday in 2019, when coordinated bombings killed more than 250 people.

In that moment of fear, Gotabaya Rajapaksa projected himself as the strongman the country needed. He won elections later that year, despite criticism of his defense ministry leadership during the war. His brother, Mahinda, the former president, became prime minister.

The civil space that had emerged “is gone now,” said Ms. Satkunanathan, adding that the recent return of Myanmar to full-fledged military dictatorship was a warning.

“The lesson is that sometimes being satisfied with scraps and not calling out a government when they don’t meet agreements — that does not work,” she said.

Reports by human rights watchdogs say that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who stacked his government with former military officers, obstructed investigations into past crimes and called those efforts “political victimization” of security officers. They also accused him of adopting policies that favor the country’s Sinhalese but are offensive to minority communities.

One policy that has drawn heavy criticism is the forced cremation of people who have died of Covid-19, over the protests of Muslims who say it disrespects their faith and its insistence on burial. The government continues the practice, saying that burial poses a health risk, despite assurances from medical experts and the World Health Organization that it does not.

M.S.M. Fahim, whose 20-day-old son died of Covid-19 at a hospital, said the government went ahead with the cremation even when he objected.

“I waited for six years to have a son,” Mr. Fahim said. “When he died, I was very sad, and when he was cremated, it made things worse for me. I was not even able to say goodbye to my son properly.”

Much of the fear for the direction of the country stems from the increasing intolerance of free speech and remembrances of past atrocities. Gotabaya Rajapaksa paints the continued protests for the disappeared and the calls for justice as disrespect for a military that defeated an insurgency that resorted to brutal acts of terror.

Activists say harassment by security officers has caused the ranks of protesters to dwindle, though many persist in their campaign to get answers about the fate of their loved ones.

Sandya Ekneligoda, who has been campaigning for justice for her missing husband, the political cartoonist and columnist Prageeth Ekneligoda, said those who had provided her a network of support for years now fear associating with her.

To mark 11 years since Prageeth disappeared, Ms. Ekneligoda — who is raising two teenage sons on her own — is sharing an archive of his work, including his unfinished cartoons. At the launch last month, she laid out his paintbrushes and other drawing tools.

“I don’t feel lonely because I keep myself occupied with the campaign and with gardening — everything is expensive now, so I plant vegetables in the garden to make ends meet,” Ms. Ekneligoda said. “I still share everything with Prageeth. I talk to him in my head when I am alone. It helps.”

“I never wondered if Prageeth is alive or not,” she added. “In reality he could be dead, but for me he is very alive.”

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