The Long Road to Justice for Sri Lanka’s Civil War Victims

During the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, around 80,000 civilians became trapped between Tamil Tiger rebels and advancing government troops (Image Source: trokilinochchi)

More than eight years after government forces crushed the northern Tamil Tiger separatists in the bloody final battle of Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war, victims of alleged human rights abuses committed by both sides still await a semblance of justice. On a visit to the island nation last month, the UN’s special rapporteur for transitional justice, Pablo De Greiff, lamented the government’s failure to establish a hybrid court to try those accused of committing war crimes. De Greiff warned Sri Lanka over its slow progress, stating the delay in investigating alleged abuses ‘‘raises many questions about the determination of the government to undertake a comprehensive transitional justice program’’.

The worst of the alleged abuses took place during the last few weeks of the conflict in May 2009, when government troops cornered the remaining rebels in a thin slice of territory along Sri Lanka’s northeast coastline. The UN and human rights groups have accused the government of extra-judicial killings, forced disappearances and indiscriminately shelling civilian ‘no-fire zones’. Meanwhile, the Tamil Tigers have been accused of launching suicide bombings, recruiting child soldiers and using civilians as human shields during the final battle.

It is estimated that in the dying months of the conflict, anywhere between 7,000 and 40,000 civilians were killed. In addition, tens-of-thousands of Sri Lankans – mostly from the Tamil ethnic minority – have disappeared without trace. With progress toward establishing a war crimes tribunal stalling almost a decade after the bloodshed ended, this report reflects on Sri Lanka’s post-war politics and looks at the political controversy surrounding efforts to put war criminals on trial.

The conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers – formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – began in 1983, after rebels fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the northeast killed 13 soldiers in an ambush. Ethnic tensions had long been simmering between the Hindu Tamil minority and the Buddhist Sinhalese majority, since Sri Lanka’s independence from 150 years of British rule in 1948. The LTTE initially carried out a guerrilla campaign consisting of suicide bomb attacks and ambushes targeting security personnel, before a full-scale civil war erupted in the mid-1990s. The two sides eventually signed a ceasefire mediated by Norway in 2002, before violence once again flared in the mid-2000s as the LTTE regained swathes of territory in its strongholds.

After the election of authoritarian president Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, the military took the fight to the rebels with renewed vigour. In January 2008, the government formally withdrew from the ceasefire and launched an all-out offensive designed to bring an end to the conflict. Over the next eighteen months, government forces re-took most of the rebel-held territory in the northeast, including the strategically-important town of Kilinochchi, which had served as the LTTE’s headquarters for more than a decade. On 19 May 2009, President Rajapaksa declared the country ‘‘liberated’’ from terrorism, as the remnants of the LTTE laid down their arms after their long-time leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed in a shoot-out with government troops.

The final weeks of the conflict were among its most bloody. More then 80,000 fleeing civilians became trapped in a small pocket of territory between rapidly advancing soldiers and retreating LTTE rebels. Alleged war crimes were committed by both sides. International human rights groups accused government forces of shelling civilians in areas which had been demarcated as ‘safe zones’, as well as carrying-out extra-judicial killings of captured Tamil fighters. The LTTE were accused of forcibly recruiting children in an attempt to bolster its rapidly-dwindling ranks, as well as launching suicide attacks in civilian areas and using fleeing civilians as human shields, even reportedly firing in front of crowds to prevent trapped people from leaving the combat zone. Media outlets – notably Channel 4 News in the UK – obtained video footage purporting to show the aftermath of hospitals being shelled, as well as unarmed Tamil fighters being blindfolded and executed by government troops at point-blank range. The footage prompted international outcry and condemnation.

The Sri Lankan government at the time – led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa – denied all allegations of abuse, labelling the unverified video footage as ‘‘fabricated’’ and an outside attempt to destabilize the country. Rajapaksa’s administration rejected all calls for an international inquiry, despite calls by the UN for Sri Lanka to set-up a hybrid court with the involvement of foreign judges.

Hopes for a formal investigation into war crimes were raised in January 2015 following the surprise election victory of Maithripala Sirisena. President Sirisena was elected on a reform ticket pledging to curb the powers of the presidency, fight corruption and protect freedom of speech, marking a clear break from the increasingly-authoritarian strongman-type regime led by Rajapaksa.

President Sirisena’s government has implemented reforms since assuming power in 2015, but a UN-backed war crimes tribunal is yet to be established (Image Source: Russian Government)

Under Sirisena, a degree of progress has indeed been made. The government has initiated public consultations on issues related to the conflict, and last year set-up an ‘Office for Missing Persons’ to trace more than 20,000 people who disappeared during the conflict and its aftermath. Among the missing are activists, journalists and critics of the government along with thousands of former LTTE rebels, family members and Tamil rights campaigners. The government has now acknowledged the problem and announced that family members of missing persons will be issued with certificates, but as yet little progress has been made in finding out the truth of what happened to the disappeared.

Some observers contend that many of the missing Tamils have been abducted by military and intelligence officers, and have either been killed or may still be being held in state-run detention centres. Some evidence has emerged to support this theory, with campaign groups such as Freedom from Torture and the International Truth and Justice Project presenting harrowing witness accounts and first-hand testimonies detailing detention and torture in military camps. Whilst these accounts are unverified, they have been supported by a number of legal and medical experts.

In the year after his election victory, President Sirisena spoke at the UN General Assembly of the importance of confronting his country’s past, pledging to ‘‘follow a process of truth-seeking, justice, reparation and non-recurrence’’. He appeared to back-up these words with action in September 2015, after tentatively agreeing to the terms of a UN Security Council resolution to establish a hybrid court – made up of both Sri Lankan and international judges – to put on trial those suspected of committing war crimes during the Tamil conflict. The move was praised by most member states.

Yet progress in establishing such a tribunal has been slow, and Sirisena appears to have backtracked on some of his early promises. A reconciliation consultation committee appointed by Sri Lanka’s government recommended earlier this year that ‘‘international participation in the court should be phased-out’’ once the ‘‘required expertise and capacity has been built-up’’ among locally-appointed judges. The tribunal has still not come to fruition, and Sri Lanka received a two-year extension in March this year to fulfil its commitment to the UN resolution, further delaying the process.

Last month, the UN’s special rapporteur for transitional justice, Pablo De Greiff, warned the government in Colombo that further delays in making good on their promise to establish a war crimes tribunal involves significant risks. After a two-week visit to Sri Lanka, he said ‘‘no-one should be under the impression that waiting is a costless alternative’’, adding that the ‘‘failure to achieve progress in fully addressing issues’’ related to the civil war ‘‘constitutes a denial of justice’’.

The longer it takes to establish the truth and secure justice for what happened in the final weeks of the conflict back in May 2009, the frustration of victims and tensions between Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Sinhalese communities will inevitably rise. Many Tamils still hold grievances and perceive repression at the hands of the state – particularly at the hands of the military – who retain a dominant presence in the northeast of the country. These suspicions will surely continue to fester for as long as relatives of the deceased and the disappeared sense a continued lack of accountability for abuses committed by state actors during the war, and an absence of justice for its thousands of civilian victims.

President Sirisena’s government has undoubtedly made progress through the introduction of limited reforms, yet accusations of human rights abuses and impunity for state actors continue to be made. It is time for the tougher and more controversial issues related to the final stages of conflict to be tackled – including confronting allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes on both sides – if reconciliation is to be achieved and Sri Lanka is to finally move on from a dark chapter in its history.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

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Cyprus: an island divided, but for how much longer?

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Since 1974, a heavily-guarded UN buffer zone has divided Cyprus’ Greek and Turkish communities (Image Source: Jpatokal)

After more than four decades of division, recent peace talks between leaders on both sides of Cyprus’ infamous Green Line have led to a renewed sense of optimism, bringing fresh hope that the long-troubled eastern Mediterranean island could finally be reunified. Since 20 July 1974, Cyprus has been split across the middle, with a 180km-long UN buffer zone separating the Greek-Cypriot south from the Turkish-Cypriot north. Despite the failure of several previous attempts at resolution, there now appears to be a greater chance of success due to a growing political will – reinforced by firm commitments from the island’s leaders – to achieve reunification.

The current phase of negotiations between Greek-Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish-Cypriot President Mustafa Akinci began in May 2015, and significant progress has been made over the last two years. Recent media reports – as of January 2017 – have indicated that the talks are now entering the latter stages, with a final deal expected to be announced in the near future. However, whilst this apparent progress should be welcomed, it is important to apply a note of caution and avoid celebrating prematurely. As talks continue further into the year, it must be acknowledged that the issue of reunification is complex and fraught with many difficult and emotive issues, which will not simply be resolved overnight – irrespective of the outcome of the current discussions.

In order to better understand the complexity of the issues to be resolved, it is first necessary to return to to the roots of Cyprus’ division, and trace the key developments across four decades of a conflict which has remained frozen in time.

In the aftermath of WWII, Cyprus initially remained under British colonial control despite the desire of many Cypriots to unify the country with Greece. Cyprus, however, never came to be under Greek control. Instead, it became a sovereign nation after being granted full independence from Britain in 1960, on the basis of a power-sharing agreement between the Greek and Turkish populations resident on the island. The Greek-Cypriot community leader – Archbishop Makarios – became president, whilst it was determined that a Turkish-Cypriot should hold the position of vice president. The status-quo didn’t last long: in 1964, inter-communal clashes broke out after Makarios proposed constitutional changes which undermined the shared governmental structure, and the fragile system of power-sharing broke down. Following these events, the United Nations sent a peacekeeping force to patrol the Green Line, which by the mid-1960s had been set up to divide the Greek and Cypriot sectors of the island’s capital city, Nicosia.

Events gathered pace in the summer of 1974. First, Greece’s nationalist government deposed Greek-Cypriot leader Makarios in a military coup, in an attempt to move forward the process of unification between Cyprus and Greece. In response to the coup, Turkish troops invaded the shores of Northern Cyprus on 20 July, quickly advancing inland before stopping at the line of division which ran through the centre of Nicosia. From that day onwards, Cyprus has remained divided in two, with the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities partitioned by a heavily-guarded buffer zone.

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Planes lie in ruin at Nicosia Airport, which has remained frozen in time since being abandoned four decades ago (Image Source: Dick Elbers)

In the four decades since – despite being split in two – Cyprus has remained largely at peace. The northern section of the country – named the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) – declared independence in 1983, yet remains recognized only Turkey. Meanwhile, the southern part of the country became a member state of the European Union in 2004, whilst the local economy has grown and the tourism industry has flourished. The only reminders of the conflict are found in the buffer zone, which is up to 7 kilometres wide in places. The landscape within the prohibited zone remains exactly as it looked at the time of abandonment 1974, with the now-defunct Nicosia International Airport serving as a lasting physical symbol of the four-decade-long stalemate. Numerous towns and villages are effectively frozen in time, after their residents fled at the height of the conflict.

Today, Cyprus has more than 1 million inhabitants. Around 80% of the population are Greek-Cypriots living in the south, most of whom are Orthodox Christians; whilst 20% are Turkish-Cypriots living in the north, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims. The internationally-recognized government of the Republic of Cyprus controls the southern two-thirds of the island, whilst the remaining one-third of territory north of the buffer zone is controlled by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

All previous attempts to negotiate a resolution have failed, first in 1987, and more notably in 2004. As part of the 2004 attempt, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan put forward a proposal to make Cyprus a federation of two separately-administered states. The idea was the cause of much optimism at the time, but was ultimately rejected by Greek-Cypriots in a referendum – despite being accepted by the Turkish-majority population in the north. The rejection of the 2004 deal now serves a signal of just how difficult the dispute is to resolve, indicating how simmering tensions and a long-standing lack of trust between the two communities could stand in the way of future efforts.

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The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) declared independence in 1983, but is only recognized by Turkey. The southern Republic of Cyprus is recognized by the UN, and became an EU member state in 2004 (Image Source: Golbez)

In the decade since, however, there is a sense that the political atmosphere on the island has shifted markedly, allowing for a new-found sense of optimism which has enveloped the current round of negotiations. The island’s leaders – Greek-Cypriot Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish-Cypriot Mustafa Akinci – share a mutual commitment to pursue reunification, and appear to have more in common than previous generations of politicians on the island. When the talks first began in May 2015, both leaders enthusiastically promised to meet regularly, in order to maintain momentum and continue moving forward with the peace process. Towards the end of 2016, the negotiations – brokered in Switzerland by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon – significantly gathered pace, leading to hopes that a settlement could be reached before the end of the year, and before Mr Ban’s term as UN head came to an end. However, despite significant progress in a number of areas, this deadline has now passed and intense discussions have continued into the new year.

In recent months, large sections of the mainstream media – particularly in the West – have often over-simplified the dispute, with the majority of reporting on the issue striking a triumphant tone and emphasizing that a resolution is close. However, this enthusiasm and positivity must be tempered by greater recognition that as the talks reach a critical stage, significant obstacles remain to be overcome, in a complex frozen conflict which has to this point proved intractable.

In particular, discussions on critical issues such as territorial realignment, land swaps, property returns and displaced persons will be highly emotive and fraught with difficulty. When the conflict was at its height in the 1960s and 1970s, around 200,000 people were displaced from their homes and driven from their businesses, many of which now lie unoccupied and in a state of ruin, abandonment and disrepair inside the buffer zone. Drawing up new boundaries, determining the control of territory, and deciding upon compensation payments and land returns will be pivotal issues in finding a resolution to the dispute, with both sides so far reportedly unable to reach agreement on difficult questions of this nature.

In addition, two wider issues remain unresolved, surrounding the questions of governance and security. Firstly, it must be determined what the new state of Cyprus should look like, and how it will be administered. Both sides are in broad agreement that the new state should be based on some kind of federal model, yet the extent of power-sharing and the exact nature of governance structures remain unclear. Secondly, the island’s security remains a core issue, which often stokes high emotions on both sides of the Green Line. For citizens in the south, the presence of 40,000 Turkish troops is often viewed as a threat, and to many constitutes an occupation; yet for citizens in the north, the continued Turkish military presence is seen as vital and offers significant reassurance to Turkish-Cypriots. These issues remain particularly contentious, and will require careful diplomacy and compromise on both sides. Finding such compromise, however, will not be easy: a high degree of opposition and scepticism remains in the south, whilst the northern side remains concerned over losing-out on issues of power-sharing and securing a rotating presidency. In any case, any proposed final peace settlement will need to gain the approval of local politicians, in addition to being deferred to the people of Cyprus in a nationwide referendum

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The latest round of peace talks between the island’s Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot leaders have moved the country closer towards reunification (Image Source: Adam Jones)

With the peace negotiations being open-ended and having no set timetable, talk of an imminent end to Cyprus’ division is premature. The political will for reunification does exist, and there remains a strong chance that the talks will be successful, yet the issues are complex and positions deeply-ingrained – meaning that if a solution is to be found, significant compromise will be required on both sides of the Green Line. Even in the scenario where an agreement has been reached, approved and implemented, only time will tell if the two communities can live together in peace and harmony once the physical barrier has been removed.

If this best-case scenario – for so long desired by many Cypriots – does indeed materialize, then the benefits for the island in the coming years – particularly in terms of tourism and economic growth – could be huge. More importantly however, at a time when peace-making is failing miserably in other parts of the region (such as in Syria and Yemen, where attempts at peaceful resolution have given way to years of bloodshed and multiple external military interventions), the reunification of Cyprus would serve as a timely reminder of what concerted and determined diplomacy can achieve.