ICTJ Dispatch: Eduardo Gonzalez on Sri Lanka

6/23/2015

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Following the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or Tamil Tigers) by the military in 2009, the Sri Lankan government of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, aggressively denied allegations that thousands of civilians have been killed in the final military operation. Despite a damning report by a UN Secretary General’s Commission of Experts which alleged that “tens of thousands of civilians” were killed in the Vanni region between January and May of 2009, the Rajapaksa government would soon be defined by its lack of responsibility for and denial of the allegations.

The election of President Maithripala Sirisena in January 2015 marked a sea change in Sri Lanka’s political environment, adding a new voice from the government to promote accountability and finally acknowledge the human rights violations that occurred during the civil war.

In this podcast, ICTJ Director of Communications Refik Hodzic speaks with Eduardo Gonzalez, Director of the Truth & Memory Program, about how the recent transition of power has created a new political climate, opening up space for new conversations about how best to deal with the legacy of the past in Sri Lanka. Gonzalez has just returned from a trip to Sri Lanka where he participated in discussion organized by the International Center for Ethnic Studies which organized a series of debates around the country to look into the possible options of addressing the legacy of violations committed during the conflict and providing a degree of justice to the victims.

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In the discussion, Gonzalez explains how the new political atmosphere has made it possible for new approaches to dealing with past abuses to gain traction. Not only did Sirisena’s election usher in a change of discourse, he says, it brought with it a new acceptance that there should be a credible accountability mechanism to investigate the past. While it remains unclear which mechanism(s) the government will choose, it has already begun engaging with the international community to help inform their decision.

“The former government cultivated a very studied action of denial and rejection of international watchdogs,” says Gonzalez. “So, they denied access to the country to researchers of international organizations, for example, and they alleged that human rights investigations were some kind of Western or new imperialistic plot against the sovereignty of the country.”

Now, Sri Lanka is working on repositioning itself within the international community and seeking its cooperation in the discussion on possible accountability measures.

Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Council has finished its inquiry into the violations committed during the civil war. Its report was originally scheduled to be released in February but was delayed until September to allow the new government an adequate amount of time to respond to it—a move which Gonzalez believes is very important.

He explains that while presidential elections were held in January, the parliament continues to have the same composition it had during the previous administration; parliamentary elections are scheduled for September. “And so the question is, what is going to be the result of those parliamentary elections? For the government it is very important to insure that they represent the new political configuration, and conducting those elections under the current political debate is probably what they want to do.”


PHOTO: Destroyed houses are seen in an abandoned conflict zone where Tamil Tigers separatists made their last stand before their defeat by the Sri Lankan army in northeastern Sri Lanka on May 23, 2009. (Joe Klamar/Getty Images)