US Congress holds discussion on Sri Lanka’s human rights situation

The Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations of the US Committee on Foreign Affairs heard evidence on “Human Rights Concerns in Sri Lanka.”

The session was chaired by Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, on Wednesday, June 20.

Testifying at Smith’s hearing were  J.S. Tissainayagam, journalist and human rights advocate, Michael Jerryson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Youngstown State University, David M. Crane, Principal at Justice Consultancy International, LLC, and John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch.

“The Sri Lankan civil war ended almost 10 years ago this May. The 25-year war cost an estimated 100,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands more. The civil war was a brutal ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils; both sides—the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and the rebel “Tamil Tigers”—have been credibly accused of unimaginable war crimes,” Chairman Smith said in his opening remarks at the hearing.

He noted that to this day, justice for many of the victims remains elusive and although many observers hoped that the reformist Government of President Sirisena would increase access to justice, focus on human rights, emphasize transparency and accountability, and improve the rule of law, his administration has been criticized for having an inadequate response.

“Despite having run on a platform of ethnic reconciliation, President Sirisena has done little to mend the ties between the groups, and the political polarization has increased among both ethnic groups,” he said.

Journalist and Human Rights Advocate J. S. Tissainayagam told the Committee that the brave new world promised by the Sri Lanka Government is in jeopardy and there has been very little tangible headway in implementing Resolution 30/1.

He also said that of the four transitional justice mechanisms outlined in September 2015, only the Office of Missing Persons has even been set up adding that its members are touring the country listening to victims and have not begun sittings.

“The dismal lack of progress and political will was noted by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zaid Al-Hussein at the UNHRC’s meeting in March this year. He said the
fulfilment of the transitional justice commitments made under Human Rights Council
Resolution 30/1 has been virtually stalled for more than a year … and the structures set up to coordinate implementation have not consolidated enough or did not receive sufficient
political support to move things forward,” Tissainayagam said. (see full statement below)

John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch said that a court with participation by foreign judges and legal experts was specifically promised in the 2015 Human Rights Council resolution, so the lack of progress will only serve to disillusion victim families.

He said that many victims and survivors have told Human Rights Watch that they won’t accept reparations unless they start seeing real progress on justice and accountability. The debate over accountability is also likely to have political ramifications as the parties vie for popular support. Among those who may run in the next election is the former president’s brother and former defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a dual US-Sri Lanka citizen, who has been implicated in military abuses at the end of the war.

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