Background:

Over the last four decades, Sri Lanka has experienced serious political repression and internal conflict, including a 26-yearlong armed conflict between the majority Sinhalese State and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The conflict ended in 2009, with the military defeat of the LTTE, but the same political and ethnic tensions have continued to tear at the fabric of Sri Lankan society. Contentious local elections and subsequent ethnic violence in early 2018 further revealed persistent fault lines. Today, this polarization remains the main obstacle to human rights and justice reforms. 

Massive human rights violations, including widespread disappearances and extrajudicial executions, were committed during the armed conflict and a leftist uprising in the late 1980s. The government, however, has yet to acknowledge and address these abuses. It is therefore as urgent as ever to uncover the fate of the disappeared, develop innovative strategies to obtain redress for victims, and safeguard the political and economic rights of all persons.

Commitments to Transitional Justice

The number of missing or disappeared persons in Sri Lanka ranks among the highest in the world, estimated to be between 60,000 and 100,000 since the late 1980s. The armed conflict was also characterized by torture, the recruitment of child soldiers, political repression, and sexual and gender-based violence, according to the 2014 United Nations investigation into Sri Lanka.

In 2015, the Sri Lankan government promised to implement a range of measures to address the history of past abuses; to pursue truth, justice, and accountability; and to provide redress to victims. These measures include four transitional justice processes: a mechanism to search for the disappeared, an office for reparations, a truth commission, and a judicial mechanism. The government’s promises were affirmed in the United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 of 2015.

To date, only one of the four promised transitional justice processes, the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), has been established. The OMP is significant in that it is the first permanent body to address the issue of the missing and disappeared in Sri Lanka. However, its creation come after a series of commissions were established to investigate cases of missing or disappeared persons but proved to be unsuccessful and failed to contribute to accountability.

Despite Sri Lanka’s formal commitments, the implementation of transitional justice processes has been alarmingly slow. Meanwhile, most victims live in dire economic circumstances and continue to struggle with the consequences of the violations they experienced. The lack of tangible results for victims, combined with the apparent delays in implementing transitional justice measures, have resulted in a loss of public trust in the government’s willingness to make good on its promises and provide redress to victims. Going forward, it is imperative that the government follow through on all of its commitments to transitional justice, in order to adequately address victims’ needs and engage them in an inclusive process of rebuilding.

ICTJ's Role:

ICTJ is working to amplify the voices of a diverse range of victims so that policymakers and other stakeholders hear and account for them when shaping policies that affect them. ICTJ is also assisting with the establishment of transitional justice processes. Specifically, ICTJ is seeking to:

  • Help victims from different communities exercise their rights within existing frameworks and emphasize the human rights dimension of their demands;
  • Work with civil society organizations on memorialization and healing activities, including helping them reflect on the impact of these activities on women victims;
  • Support government entities in the implementation of accountability and acknowledgment measures, with a view to improving their effectiveness and ensuring they are more responsive to victims’ demands.