Sri Lanka’s new court to examine war crimes

Following the decades of war and violence in Sri Lanka during its civil war fought between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE (The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), the newly elected Sri Lankan government lead by Maithripala Sirisena has announced the setting up of a special court to examine war crimes allegedly committed under the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, president at the time.

It has been reported that the court will begin its work either in December or the beginning of January. Chandrika Kumaratunga, president of Sri Lanka from 1994 to 2005, and head of the reconciliation unit under the current Sri Lankan government has stated that the court will be domestic in nature, although there may be room for assistance and advice from international experts. The decision to establish a special court comes after continued pressure from the UN since 2009 on the Sri Lankan government to carry out probes into possible war crimes it may have committed. Particularly after previous president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s continued to reject pressure by the UN, Such a decision by the current Sri Lankan government is largely viewed as a victory for the UN. The decision also strengthens Sri Lanka’s position in the international community after the isolation and backlash it faced during and after the civil war.

However the success of the court and its steps towards healing a deeply wrought racial conflict will largely depend on how the work of the court will be carried out. It is here that issues arise as to how the court will work, and which contravened laws will be disputed is unanswered. This is particularly problematic as Sri Lanka does not have laws expressly prohibiting war crimes and crimes against humanity. Then, for the court to be effective, these laws would need to be enacted immediately. Further issues arise regarding the scope of the court as Chandrika Kumaratunga, president of Sri Lanka from 1994 till 2005, has considerable say in the array of issues that the court can address as he is head of the reconciliation unit. As the civil war began in 1972 questions arise regarding whether the court will also examine the conduct of her government. Moreover with Kumaratunga’s key role, this leaves the court susceptible to claims of bias and lack of fair judicial processes, and the potential for racial tensions to rise. This is escalated by her recently claiming that Tamil leaders will be asked to answer for horrendous crimes as ‘we have ended the war nearly seven years ago, but we have not won the peace’. For the court to succeed a clear consultative process, free from political influence would be needed, particularly as the current and prior Sri Lankan governments are extremely Sinhalese dominated.

In addition the level of international involvement will need to be clarified, as it is a sensitive issue for the Sri Lankan government and Sri Lankan population. Given the current political issues at play in the establishment of the new court, greater international involvement other than that which the Sri Lankan government has specified would be the best option to eliminate racial conflicts, create a completely impartial court and avoid any claims of bias. In turn this would lead to greater chances of reconciliation and peace between the two groups.