The International Truth and Justice Project – Sri Lanka (ITJP) releases a new report today. The report, “A Still Unfinished War: Sri Lanka’s Survivors of Torture and Sexual Violence 2009 – 2015,” is the product of extensive research and builds upon the organization’s past work. Importantly, it includes abuses which have occurred since Maithripala Sirisena was elected president in early January, when he unseated two-term incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa.
ITJP has documented 180 cases and includes numerous quotations from survivors, the vast majority of whom are ethnic Tamils. In addition to documenting torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detention and more, ITJP also identifies perpetrators and includes dozens of known torture sites in Sri Lanka.
This is a well-written, timely document which underscores the grave and comprehensive challenges that ethnic Tamils continue to face in post-war Sri Lanka. The detailed accounts of torture and rape are difficult to read, but – aside from the horrific violations recounted – what really stands out is the comprehensive, wide-ranging and pernicious nature of Sri Lanka’s state security apparatus, which continues to operate with impunity. In addition to documenting tragic human rights violations, the evidence produced by ITJP reveals that the country’s state security apparatus does not seem to have changed its ways since Sirisena assumed the presidency.
With a parliamentary election set for August 17 and the forthcoming release of a long-awaited report that focuses on wartime abuses at the UN Human Rights Council’s 30th session in Geneva, the island nation is sure to receive significant international attention in the weeks ahead.
This report is a stark reminder that, irrespective of what happens during the upcoming election, many of Sri Lanka’s most pressing problems are both structural and systemic; the Sinhala-dominated state has discriminated against Tamils for decades. Moreover, six years after the conclusion of the civil war, the war-weary Tamil community’s most urgent needs remain unmet. To make matters worse, today a more subtle war still rages across the historically Tamil northern and eastern provinces. Torture, sexual violence, surveillance, continued militarization, discrimination, and intimidation all threaten the very fabric of Tamil society and culture.
Let’s hope that those walking the corridors of power in Washington, London, Geneva and elsewhere haven’t forgotten that sustained, constructive engagement with Sri Lanka is absolutely essential. More specifically, if the international community really does want to help Sri Lanka heal the wounds of decades of war, it could start by considering a long-term strategy that acknowledges the above-mentioned institutional constraints and the concomitant ‘unfinished war’ which continues to be waged against the Tamil community. In order to begin crafting such a plan, international actors would need to deemphasize the outcome of any particular election. As this report clearly illustrates, a peaceful transfer of power in Colombo does not mean that truth, justice, accountability or reconciliation will follow inevitably. Failing to deal with the roots of Sri Lanka’s violent history ensures that the prospects of genuine peace become ever more precarious.
Taylor Dibbert is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. and the author of Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.