May 17, 2019

Menendez Statement for the Record on the Tenth Anniversary of the End of the Sri Lankan Civil War

WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, submitted the following statement for the Senate record this week commemorating the tenth anniversary of the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka. In his remarks, the Senator also urges Sri Lankans to continue on the path of peace and reconciliation following last month’s terrorist attacks.

“Mr. President, May 18th marks the 10th anniversary of the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka.  In May 2009, the war between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended.  The civil war was a 27-year-long assault on the coexistence of the Sri Lankan people, leaving scars that remain today.  Both the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE targeted dissidents and members of other ethnic communities, indiscriminately bombing places of worship, hospitals, and public transport.  On this tenth anniversary, I urge the people of Sri Lanka to renew their commitment to peace, reconciliation, and accountability for human rights violations and crimes committed during the conflict.  In the wake of the devastating terrorist attacks last month, the international community should also renew its commitment to supporting those Sri Lankan citizens committed to a peaceful and democratic society where the rights of all are protected under the law.

The final years of the war saw heightened intensity of fighting and soaring human rights abuses, including hundreds of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings of aid workers, arbitrary arrests, torture and the use of child soldiers.  The government labeled any reporters critical of the government’s war against the LTTE as “traitors” and “terrorists,” and the LTTE tolerated no dissent in areas it controlled.  The last few months of fighting resulted in the deaths of as many as 40,000 civilians in the final assault against the LTTE.  Victims’ groups say the fates of more than 100,000 people remain unknown.  UN satellite images showed that the government repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled No Fire Zones, where it had encouraged civilians to concentrate, and where estimates show that as many as 330,000 civilians were trapped.   UN investigations determined that “gross violations” of international rights law occurred on all sides of the conflict, including the thousands of civilian deaths in the military assault that ended the rebellion.  Many deaths and tens of thousands of disappearances remain unaddressed.

For many Sri Lankans, the terrorist attacks last Easter Sunday, evoked emotion reminiscent of war times.  I express my deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones and denounce in the strongest terms this vile attack on the Sri Lankan people.  As families recovered bodies of loved ones, and buried and cremated them, they felt a pain that is sadly too familiar to so many Sri Lankans.  While the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday attacks sought to sow hatred between communities and bring chaos to Sri Lanka, the government bears the responsibility to respond swiftly to retaliatory attacks against Muslim communities, and ensure communal harmony and national unity.  To be Sri Lankan is to be Buddhist, to be Hindu, to be Muslim and to be Christian.  All these communities have the right to exercise their religious identity and to live in peace and security in Sri Lanka. 

On January 9, 2015 the Sri Lankan people voted to unseat President Mahinda Rajapaksa. A few months later, the government of Maithripala Sirisena co-sponsored United Nations Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 on “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka” ushering in what appeared to be a new era dedicated to justice and reconciliation.   This enthusiasm and hope has unfortunately faded over the years.  In 2017, Sri Lanka received a two-year extension to implement the commitments in the resolution. This past March, the UNHRC adopted a new resolution again co-sponsored by the government of Sri Lanka extending the timeline to implement outstanding promises another two years.   Resolution 30/1 contains 36 actionable commitments. The Sri Lankan government has fulfilled only six over a period of four years.  These include recent decisions to criminalize enforced disappearances, create an Office on Missing Persons, and appointing commissioners to the Office Reparations.  Why did these few steps require four years of time?

Despite the long list of promises, there has been little to no progress in establishing a commission for truth, justice, reconciliation, and non-recurrence.  Despite commitments made by the government, Sri Lanka has not adopted constitutional reforms that would address the long held grievances of communities across the country.  The government has failed to strengthen the victim and witness protection law.  Security sector reforms, including repealing and replacing the Prevention of Terrorism Act, have not taken place.  The lack of accountability with respect war crimes suspects remains a serious concern.  Limited legal action has been taken to prosecute and hold alleged perpetrators to account.  There is a lack of trust and confidence in domestic structures, so I echo the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s calls that the international community use the principle of universal jurisdiction to hold accountable those who face allegations of serious human rights violations.

Sri Lankan people deserve justice, peace, and protections.  The country cannot move forward, rebuild, and prosper without a time-bound plan for the government to fully implement its HRC commitments.  Accountability, transitional justice, and reconciliation are hard.  But left unresolved, these issues fester over time and could lead to renewed instability.  Clearly, such an outcome should be avoided as it benefits no one in or outside of Sri Lanka.   

The war in Sri Lanka was a terrible episode in a country with a proud past.  How Sri Lanka finally decides to deal with the legacy of the conflict is critically important for its future.  My hope is that the government of Sri Lanka delivers on all its stated commitments, and that the international community maintains its focus on these post-war promises.  As the country contends with the impact of reprehensible violence last month, it must renew its focus on the fundamentals of an inclusive multi-religious and multi-ethnic society.  And I call on the friends of Sri Lanka around the world to support true reconciliation and healing as those constructive elements of society work hard to chart a positive future for all of the country’s people.”


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