Long time coming

Sri Lanka’s slow march toward justice for rape survivors

The government there is finally setting up a transitional justice mechanism to investigate war crimes abuses

Sri Lankan women look on before a protest to mark International Women's Day in Colombo March 8, 2013. Protesters demanded government action on domestic violence and rape. (REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte)

The government of Sri Lanka is finally crafting a transitional justice mechanism to address the mass human rights violations that took place during the country’s three-decades-long civil war. More women are coming forward and testifying about the sexual abuse they have faced. Many women and girls were victims of sexual assault, abuse, torture, violence, and disappearance during the war. The United Nations (U.N.) has said that members of the security forces may be liable for wartime abuses including sexual violence. 

The civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) came to an end on May 18, 2009. The LTTE, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, was a separatist militant group formed in 1972 by its founder Velupillai Prabhakaran. The rebel group fought for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority living in the North and East. The LTTE wanted to establish an independent state known as Tamil Eelam and by the late 1980s it became a dominant militant organization in Sri Lanka. The war ended after a brutal, year-long military offensive against the rebel group. During the last few months of the war, the Sri Lankan army killed many top military personnel, including the LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran.

During Mahinda Rakapakse’s presidency, the government established the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to deal with the wartime related accusations. Although the final report released by the LLRC in December 2011 recognized the need for a political resolution, it did not wholly address human rights abuses and how to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The new government, which came into power in 2015 during a surprise victory, said that it will seek national reconciliation by engaging the international community. The incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena’s victory ushered hope that the new transitional justice apparatus will provide justice and accountability. During the 30th United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session, the Sri Lankan government announced that it will set up the transitional justice mechanism.

Justice for survivors of the war has remained conspicuously absent apart from a few cases that were reported and in which legal action was taken against the culprits. The culture of silence revolving around rape and other forms of sexual violence has posed a challenge in providing justice and relief for rape survivors.

In Sri Lanka, the silence around rape and sexual violence has deterred many victims from reporting the crime to authorities or even coming forward. There is a stigma around sexual violence where rape survivors are seen as “spoilt goods.” Some survivors and their families have even feared reprisal by the same perpetrators. When survivors are afraid to speak up, it makes it difficult to determine the nature, extent and magnitude of sexual violence that occurred during the civil war.

During the war, a number of rape complaints were filed against the perpetrators from survivors of rape and sexual assault. Concrete circumstantial proof has found that many of these assaults were committed by members of security forces. Among the perpetrators were security personnel, paramilitary forces, members of armed rebel organizations, and gangs to local politicians. A lot of the sexual violence and assault took place in secret detention centers. 

However, most of these cases lacked full-fledged investigations and the perpetrators are still enjoying impunity. Legal impunity for these culprits has shaped the dominant landscape in post-war Sri Lanka. There are only a handful of cases where the perpetrators have been brought to the courts and prosecuted. In the cases of Krishanthy Kumaraswamy (1996) and Visvamadu (2010), members of Sri Lankan security forces personnel were prosecuted to the end and found guilty of sexual violence and murder.  

The Prevention of Terrorist Act (PTA) was rampantly used against Tamil civilians during the war. As a result, many Tamil women were arrested by members of the Police Special Investigation Unit. Two of these women were Sivamany Sinnathamby and Wijikala Nanthakumar, who were arrested under PTA in 2001. They were taken into custody where they were raped and tortured by the authorities, and forced to sign confessions that they belonged to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). 

When they were first examined by the Judicial Medical Officer (JMO), no proof of rape was documented. After a public outrage, the women were re-examined and the results displayed strong signs of rape. Some have speculated that there was no actual medical examination initially conducted. Three police officers and nine navy personnel were recognized as the culprits. These are two cases where a public outcry led to a second examination. Many other victims and survivors of rape do not have evidence or proof of rape due to false examination.

After the war, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights launched the Investigation the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) to investigate alleged human rights abuses, including sexual violence. Other international organizations such as the International Truth and Justice Project, Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch and Freedom from Torture have also compiled testimonies from rape survivors who said that they were physically and sexually abused by members of the security forces. These reports aimed to make sexual violence during the civil war visible. 

As many survivors of rape and sexual assault come forward to testify, it is time to stop looking at them as victims but, rather, as agents of change. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 1325 to reiterate women’s role in areas such as conflict prevention and conflict resolution, peace negotiations and peace-building. The resolution, adopted in October 2000, encourages female participation and includes a female perspective in U.N. peace and security-related issues. The UNSC Resolution 1325 should be the cornerstone of the Sri Lankan government’s transitional justice mechanism that empowers survivors and ends the impunity in sight.

Roshni Kapur is a graduate student at the University of Sydney majoring in Peace and Conflict Studies.

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