“We have proof of war crimes- we demand justice” - that was the message from thousands of Tamil protesters gathered outside the 19th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva this week.
Their grievance is totally understandable. It has been three years since the Sri Lankan government carried out a straggering litany of atrocities costing tens of thousands of civilian lives, in their final push to defeat the reprehensible Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Yet in spite of a damming report by UN in 2011, recommending the establishment of an independent international mechanism to conduct investigations into Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes, the wheels of justice have been painfully slow to turn.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, far from facing trial, remains at the helm of government. Of those soldiers who shelled no fire zones, attacked UN and Red Cross operations, executed LTTE suspects and raped women, not one has faced charges. Meanwhile the post-war crackdown on the Tamil population continues and, despite the objections of activists, scores of suspected LTTE members have been deported by states including the UK, to face arbitrary arrest and torture.
The current session of the UN Human Rights Council, which runs until late March, provides a valuable opportunity to finally address the atrocities that took place and to establish the international mechanisms needed to bring those responsible to justice.
And it is an opportunity that the world cannot afford to miss. Mass graves, video footage, satellite photographs and extensive witness testimony provide an abundance of evidence; yet even in light of this, tracking down suspects and making charges stick will only become more difficult as the years roll on.
This means that whilst Sri Lanka’s leaders are seeking to totally derail any possible investigation, they will also welcome significant delays. Unfortunately, India’s opposition to ‘country specific resolutions’ and Chinese-Russian support for Sri Lanka may result in any substantial resolution in this session being kicked out, meaning that a further long delay is exactly what is on the cards.
Still, Rajapaksa and his thugs should take note: in the coming weeks the Special Court for Sierra Leone will pass judgement on former Liberian President Charles Taylor’s support for Revolutionary United Front (RUF) abuses in Sierra Leone some two decades ago; and just last month Kaing Guek Eav aka. Duch was sentenced for his part in Khmer Rouge atrocities during the 1970s. Both trials were beset with problems, partly due to the sheer length of time that has elapsed – but both have demonstrated that such crimes will eventually catch up with their perpetrators. Those responsible for the atrocities in Tamil Eelam can lie, they can deny and they can delay – but they cannot hide the truth forever.