When there is no justice: the case of post-conflict Sri Lanka

Sara E Davies & Jacqui True

October is the month where the UN Security Council discusses the cross-cutting thematic women, peace and security agenda culminating in an Open Debate held on Friday October 27th. Leading up to that event the UN Secretary-General released his annual report on WPS on 16 October. In that report Secretary-General Gueterres stated that despite growing evidence that implementation of WPS can lead to transformative change in peace and conflict situations, that implementation continues to fall short (S/2017/861: 1). Referring to post-conflict situations where the formal cessation of violence has been achieved he highlighted the case of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka illustrates the major shortfalls in WPS implementation because the country has failed to acknowledge let alone prosecute the sexual violence crimes committed in the final stages of the conflict in 2008 and 2009 (S/2017/861: 7). During and after the Sri Lankan civil war (1983–2009), war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed by both sides of the conflict. The failure to address these crimes ensures an ongoing culture of impunity for sexual and gender-based violence in Sri Lanka. The UN special rapporteur for transitional justice Pablo de Greiff, visited Sri Lanka this month to investigate the progress of post-war reconciliation. Regrettably, he reported that the country remained “slow in dealing with allegations of war crimes.” This is the outcome, he argued, of the government’s attitude toward transitional justice as “a threat to the majority community [and] of interest to one of the minorities only – and all others left at the margins.”

We recently published an article in the International Human Rights Journal studying the case of Sri Lanka based on our Australian Research Council project on the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence in Asia Pacific conflicts.  In this research, similar to the UN Special Rapporteur we canvas the political obstacles and resistance to transitional justice to redress these crimes in Sri Lanka. We consider whether in a situation of decided impunity such as Sri Lanka, gender-sensitive approaches to preventing sexual and gender based violence can nonetheless be promoted to ensure the non-recurrence of this violence.

In the article we closely examine women’s ongoing experiences of insecurity and violence in post-conflict Sri Lanka to examine the relationship between enduring structural gender inequalities and reparative justice. We argue that combining human rights and political economy approaches is essential to reducing gender inequalities in access to resources and public space which are major risk factors for exacerbating and perpetuating the gender-based violence and structural harm caused by the protracted civil war.

During fieldwork conducted in late 2016 in post-conflict Sri Lanka, we saw how stigma remains a potent force that sustains the culture of impunity and the gender inequalities both between and within ethnic communities. Individuals working with and advocating for populations affected by Sri Lanka’s civil war explained the silence of sexual violence survivors with reference to the intersectional inequalities they face. The “victorious soldier,” whether a Tamil Tiger or a member of the national armed forces, cannot admit the crimes they may have suffered while a prisoner of war. The prospective Muslim bride, with only her virginity as guarantee of dowry, and respect for her family, cannot speak of the violence she may have been subjected to when her community was expelled from Tamil-held regions.  The Tamil woman who is head of a single headed household, with her husband missing or dead, is vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by both local Tamils and nearby military bases. Many who returned to their villages after internment in displacement camps like Manik Farm, dare not speak of the sexual violence they experienced for fear of retribution and retaliation in an area under close military supervision.

Rather than refer to this scourge of sexual violence explicitly, however, Sri Lanka government and NGOs prefer to discuss the prevalence of domestic violence across the country, and the high rates of gender-based violence in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Eight years after the formal end to the Sri Lanka civil war, there has been no government-appointed independent investigation into sexual violence that allegedly occurred during and immediately after the war. Nor is there yet a transitional justice mechanism in place to provide gender-sensitive justice for survivors such as compensation, legal, health and psychosocial services, and livelihood support. Addressing violence against women in general terms is considered a “safe” alternative that does not challenge the narrative of the government’s military victory over the Tamil minority.

Breaking the official silence, advocates continue to call on the Sri Lankan government and international donor community to support their work on gender, peace, and security, and engage with the widest range of institutions and actors to do so. The existence of an entrenched culture of stigma experienced by sexual violence victims rather than perpetrators of violence explains why this form of violence continues to proliferate in Sri Lanka. The challenge of prosecuting perpetrators is increased by the fact that they are often still in the victim’s life — as a neighbour, soldier or administrator.  That is the corrosive power of conflict-related sexual violence — the health, economic, and social consequences of this violence reverberates long into peacetime. The reluctance of victims and survivors to report their experiences of gender-based violence is further reinforced in peacetime if there is no likelihood of justice, no compensation, and pervasive social stigma. The groups that suffer this violence live in silence and in fear while the stigma and impunity shape who is able to emerge from the conflict unblemished and free to sit in parliament or other areas of society.

Open access to our article is available here: http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/nPNGuMSTs267iufEN5Et/full