Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is rightly proud of Germany's commitment to global human rights. The Foreign Office says that human rights are at the core of German foreign policy. The federal government now has the chance to fill this postulate with life when Sri Lanka is on the agenda at the next session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Germany is a member of the “core group” of states at the Human Rights Council that presented a 2015 landmark resolution on Sri Lanka. It offered victims of abuses during the country’s long civil war the hope of truth, justice, and reconciliation, and upheld the principle of accountability for the most serious international crimes. Victims’ groups welcomed Germany’s role, and there were significant improvements in human rights, particularly freedom of expression. The shadow of fear and repression was lifted.
But the human rights situation in Sri Lanka has worsened to such an extent since Gotabaya Rajakpaksa became president in 2019 that Germany should place itself at the head of the states taking action to protect human rights there. Rajapaksa, his brother and associates are implicated in many of the war crimes and abuses committed when they were previously in government between 2005-2015.
It is therefore astonishing – and disconcerting -- that there are worrying indications Germany is not playing its crucial role for justice and might even consider weakening the resolution in the interests of compromise. The recent tweetfrom the German ambassador in Colombo, in which he expressed hope that the Human Rights Council resolution will be passed by consensus with Sri Lanka’s endorsement, was particularly irritating.
That such a resolution could have a bite, and that senior government officials who are implicated in war crimes would condemn and hold themselves accountable for their own actions, would be an illusion, to say the least.
In a hard hitting new report, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, says that “Sri Lanka remains in a state of denial about the past”, and the “current trajectory sets the scene for the recurrence of the policies and practices that gave rise to grave human rights violations.” She warns of growing militarization, and calls for member states to take urgent action.
Tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the civil war between government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which ended in 2009. Both sides committed numerous war crimes, particularly in the final months of the war. At that time Mahinda Rajapaksa was president and his brother Gotabaya was the defence secretary. They oversaw armed forces that repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled civilians and summarily executed captured LTTE fighters. Critics of the government and suspected LTTE supporters were murdered, tortured, and “disappeared” in white vans, abuses that continued even after the fighting ended. When the Rajapaksas finally lost power in the 2015 presidential election, there seemed to be an opening for change.
Now fear has returned. In November 2019 Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president and he appointed his brother Mahinda as prime minister.
Soon after, the government renounced its commitments under the 2015 Human Rights Council resolution. He has appointed to his administration numerous individuals who were implicated in war crimes, including his chief of defense staff, Gen. Shavendra Silva, who is banned from traveling to the United States for “his involvement, through command responsibility, in gross violations of human rights, namely extrajudicial killings.”
In March, Rajapaksa pardoned former army sergeant Sunil Ratnayake, who killed eight Tamil civilians including children, one of very few security force members ever held accountable for violations. In September, Sri Lanka told the Human Rights Council that allegations against senior military officers are “unacceptable” and without “substantive evidence.”
In October, the government amended the Constitution to remove the remaining constraints on political interference in Sri Lanka’s courts. The few officials who have sought to pursue justice are now at risk.
Instead of reconciliation and justice, the government is promoting extremist Sinhala Buddhist nationalism that discriminates against minority groups. Tamil communities in the north and east fear increasing instances of arbitrary and abusive treatment by security forces. Meanwhile, there has been an alarming rise in discrimination against Muslims, such as a ban on the burial of people who died with Covid-19, which denies the religious rights of Muslims and has no medical justification.
At its next session, beginning later this month, the Human Rights Council will face a crucial decision: whether to allow the Sri Lankan government to continue down this path, or take action to protect vulnerable Sri Lankans and uphold international law.
For the past decade the council has sought to work with Sri Lanka to promote reconciliation and accountability, but Sri Lanka has rejected those efforts. Now other measures are required. Steps to advance international accountability for international crimes will reduce the growing risk of future horrors. Germany should ensure that the warning signs are heeded, by working with partners on the core group to adopt a strong and effective resolution before the situation deteriorates further. It is crucial for Germany to step up once more to take the meaningful action that is urgently required.