Yasmin Sooka, co-author of the UN Panel of Experts report into mass atrocities in Sri Lanka and the ‘An Unfinished War: Torture and Sexual Violence in Sri Lanka 2009—2014‘report, called on Tuesday for international action to stop ongoing sexual violence by the security security forces against Tamils, which she stressed was “not random” but “systematic”.
In an interview with the Tamil Guardian during the global summit on ‘End Sexual Violence in Conflict’ taking place in London this week, Ms Sooka stressed that five years after the war, sexual violence “is still happening in Sri Lanka and we have to draw attention to it so we can put a stop to it”.
“I was shocked by the witness statements and the testimonies, because the kind of things that were done, were so depraved,” Ms Sooka said of her experience of collecting evidence for the ‘An Unfinished War’ report, published earlier this year.
“There was no distinction that was drawn between men and women,” she added.
The report included 40 testimonies of rape and torture in Sri Lanka since the end of the armed conflict in 2009, some of which are to be read out by celebrities including M.I.A. and Bianca Jagger at an event on Wednesday aimed at raising international awareness about sexual violence against Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Pointing to the lack of prosecutions of military personnel in Sri Lanka and the background of systematic acts of sexual violence against Tamils, she said, “one cannot but then draw the inference that it’s actually being encouraged and that it’s part of a policy framework.”
Acknowledging the clear ethnic division between perpetrators of sexual violence, Sinhala military personnel, and the victims, who were almost invariably Tamil, Ms Sooka said there was an obvious power imbalance in Sri Lanka.
“There is a power dynamic structurally. The military is in control and you will remember in the report we wrote as the [UN] Panel of Experts, we talked about the [Sinhala] triumphalism,” she said. “Obviously annihilating the Tigers has created that sense of triumphalism and clearly it finds expression in the fact that Tamils in Sri Lanka are a vanquished group.”
UN must probe charge of genocide
Commenting on whether the abuses amount to a genocide of the Tamil people, Ms Sooka said,
“I do think that when the [forthcoming OHCHR] inquiry takes place they will need to probe this question because many Tamils have often spoken about the fact that this is a genocide, and that it has genocidal tendencies – the way in which this war prosecuted.”
“I think all of us in the Panel that were confronted with this question have always raised that there is a real need for a proper investigation when it happens to test this issue [genocide].”
Noting incidents of sexual violence perpetrated against non-Tamils, Ms Sooka said that they too were invariably seen as being linked in some way to the Tamil side.
“I think it’s about which side, or who you supported really, that seems to be one of the criteria to become the fact in this ongoing conflict. If you were perceived to be in opposition to the state then the same kind of treatment is going to be meted out to you.”
“But there is no doubt that in the sample group that we looked, 39 of our witnesses were Tamil and of course in the interrogation the language that was used was really derogatory and really also picked up on the ethnic factor.”
Referring to the upcoming international inquiry mandating by the UN Human Rights Council, Ms Sooka suggested that the inquiry will have to look at this ethnic factor, including “what does it mean when you have a sense one over one, and have the vanquished all belong[ing] to a particular ethnic group”.
Pointing to the contradiction between the Sri Lankan government’s claims of peace and reconciliation whilst abuses against Tamils are continuing, Ms Sooka said “there is a real question to be asked about whether the government is serious”.
“[It also] raises the question of the obligations of the international community to make sure that Sri Lanka is held accountable,” she added.
Recalling her extensive experience on human rights abuses and atrocities, Ms Sooka said “even though I’ve been in many countries that have gone through conflict and have been in post-conflict countries as well, there may be something different in the way in which the war in Sri Lanka was conducted.”
“The callous disregard for life during that final phase, and the manner in which the war was conducted was extremely cynical” she said.
See full text of interview here.
See also our feature, Sexual Violence in Conflict: Sri Lanka, for more on the ‘An Unfinished War: Torture and Sexual Violence in Sri Lanka 2009—2014‘ report, as well as other reports documenting evidence of rape and sexual violence against Tamils.