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Sri Lanka. Atrocities, Accountability, and the Decline of Rule of Law

Chandra Lekha Sriram


between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was brought to a close. Estimates of casualties during the conflict vary, but may be as high as 100,000, and during the final government offensive from January to May 2009, the UN expert report estimates that as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed.[1] During the course of the conflict, widespread human rights violations were committed by forces of the government and the LTTE alike. The LTTE engaged in acts of terrorism, including suicide bombing, and also attacked civilians and recruited child soldiers. Government forces, both the army and other security forces, engaged in attacks including shelling on civilians and hospitals and other humanitarian installations, involuntary disappearance, torture, arbitrary arrests, killings of noncombatants and combatants attempting to surrender, and denial of food and medical supplies to civilians.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) and a range of other international human rights NGOs have thoroughly documented abuses on both sides and highlighted what they deem widespread acts tantamount to war crimes committed by government forces during their final offensive. However, the only proposed response to abuses during the conflict is a commission of inquiry created by the government, designed to examine only crimes alleged to have been committed by the LTTE. The government has been resistant to external scrutiny of its activities and loudly condemned both NGO and UN reports regarding alleged war crimes.

A close examination of the situation in Sri Lanka is merited in any comparative study of transitional justice in Asia, even though accountability measures that address violations committed by both the LTTE and the government throughout the conflict and during the brutal final months of the conflict seem unlikely at this time. Despite the limited prospects for accountability at this time, closer examination is merited because Sri Lanka has in fact utilized accountability measures for past abuses previously (largely during the 1990s), the country is and has almost continuously been a democracy since independence, and until recently a vibrant civil society has issued frequent calls for accountability.

The resistance of the government to discussions of accountability seems peculiar, in the context of developing scholarship suggesting that past transitional justice measures help engender better human rights and democracy records given that the country has experienced a range of such measures, yet the quality of democracy, human rights, and rule of law appear to have been progressively degraded.[2] Thus, Sri Lanka’s experience is important per se, but also because it seems to run counter to predictions from recent large-N studies.

This chapter will discuss the conflict in Sri Lanka, its earlier experiments with accountability, and the concomitant decline of rule of law there. It will then turn to the end of the conflict, alleged abuses, and the failure to address them, and posit that perhaps the prior accountability measures served as cover, intentional or not, for the broader undermining of rule of law. It will, finally, consider options for accountability outside of Sri Lanka, and whether they have any prospect of affecting the domestic landscape.

  • [1] United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability inSri Lanka (31 March 2011), p. 41. REDRESS Trust, ‘Comments and Recommendationsto the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on the Issue of Accountability with Regardto Alleged Violations of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law duringthe Final Stages of the Conflict in Sri Lanka’ (15 December 2010), at;Anonymous, ‘Against the Grain: Pursuing a Transitional Justice Agenda in PostwarSri Lanka,’ International Journal of Transitional Justice Vol. 5 (2011).
  • [2] Tricia Olsen, Leigh Payne, and Andrew Reiter, Transitional Justice in Balance: Comparing Processes, Weighing Efficacy (Washington, DC: United States Institute of PeacePress, 2010);Kathryn Sikkink, The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights ProsecutionsAre Changing the World (New York: Norton, 2011).
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