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Sri Lanka: 'No one cares more about human rights than us'

Frank Suyak
March 31, 2021

Sri Lanka’s civil war ended 12 years ago, but its sectarian tensions remain, while new divisions are exploited by politicians and worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Will Sri Lanka protect human rights?

A police officer stands guard in front of St. Anthony Church in Colombo, Sri Lanka on the anniversary of the 2019 Easter bombings
Image: Eranga Jayawardena/AP/picture alliance

Is Sri Lanka lurching back to sectarian conflict?

The United Nations announced last week that it would launch a mission to investigate war crimes in Sri Lanka. The body’s Human Rights Council approved a mandate to collect evidence saying that "trends emerging over the past year, which represent a clear early warning sign of a deteriorating situation of human rights in Sri Lanka."

DW’s Tim Sebastian spoke with the Sri Lankan Secretary to the Foreign Ministry, Jayanath Colombage, on UN’s upcoming investigation. The secretary insisted that his country’s government takes the issue seriously: "No one else is [more] interested in human rights than Sri Lankans and Sri Lanka."

Colombage told Conflict Zone that while progress had been made in Sri Lanka since the end of the country’s 25-year old civil war 12 years ago, work still needed to be done.

"We had a war for one generation, and it takes time to heal completely," he said from Colombo.

Civil war casts long shadow

The civil war in Sri Lanka ended with a government victory over the Tamil Tigers in 2009. A number of commissions followed in the years since, seeking to promote justice and reconciliation between the minority Tamil community and the majority Sinhalese as well as examine allegations of war crimes.

The conflict saw horrific atrocities on both sides and tens of thousands of people are still missing. Some war crimes have been investigated and prosecutions moved forward, but increasingly politicians have sought to stoke division and prosecute those conducting the investigations.

Colombage told Sebastian he would not comment on the specifics of a controversial pardon by the president of a soldier accused of massacring civilians including children.

"The president will never, ever take the side of a criminal," Colombage said.

The former admiral pointed out that thousands of former Tamil insurgents had been pardoned as well and that child soldiers had been reintegrated rather than prosecuted. 

Cremation of Muslim COVID victims sparks anger

The COVID-19 pandemic has also played a role in sectarian tension in the country, with the government initially decided to insist that victims of the virus be cremated, which outraged Sri Lanka’s Muslim population — a decision it sought to blame on the World Health Organization (WHO).

Sebastian pointed out that the WHO had refuted the government’s claim that its guidelines supported cremation of victims.

The foreign secretary insisted the decision was not "political" but driven by "science" and that "now we have corrected it." 

In the wake of the 2019 Easter bombings in which churches and hotels were targeted, Sri Lanka implemented harsh new counterterrorism procedures, which led to what the United Nations concerns about arbitrary detention in the country. Colombage insisted the measures were necessary in the wake of the bombings: "It would have been utter chaos" without the authority to detain suspects, he told Sebastian.

The coordinated Jihadi suicide bombings claimed nearly 300 lives and injured more than 500 people.

"There is a lot of evidence surfacing regarding the Easter bombing," the foreign secretary insisted.

Sebastian asked Colombage why the Sri Lankan president had sought to stoke sectarian anxiety by implying the Sinhalese were being "threatened with destruction."  
Colombage said, "In the same statement, if I remember right, he made it very clear that he is the president for all communities, all people in this country."