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Harvard Law Student Coordinates Open Letter to United Nations Calling for Human Rights Accountability in Sri Lanka

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Sondra R. P. Anton, a second-year student at Harvard Law School, has coordinated an open letter to the United Nations calling on the Human Rights Council to create a new resolution to promote accountability for human rights violations in Sri Lanka.

The open letter, which was sent in February, argues that “prospects for domestic justice and accountability efforts in Sri Lanka have dimmed entirely” since the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the Sri Lankan presidency in November 2019.

The letter was signed by 22 organizations, including Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, the Center for Justice and Accountability, Human Rights Watch, and the World Organization Against Torture.

Rajapaksa formerly served as secretary to the ministry of defense in the government led by his brother, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, from 2005 to 2015. During this period, many critics of the Sri Lankan government disappeared or were tortured or murdered.

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Sri Lanka's 26-year-long civil war ended in May 2009 with the deaths of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians in the final months alone, many of them caused by government shelling. The UN and other human rights groups have called for inquiries into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa during this period.

Rajapaksa’s election to the presidency has ignited fears about the regression of human rights in Sri Lanka. In February 2020, the new administration announced its withdrawal from a landmark resolution that promoted human rights — a move the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said demonstrated the Sri Lankan government’s “inability and unwillingness” to be held accountable for human rights violations.

Anton, who worked closely with the Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic during the letter-writing process, said this is “a really pivotal time” for Sri Lanka, and that the country is “one of the world’s biggest failures” in recent history.

“There’s this assumption that with the end of war comes peace, and that could not be further from the truth in Sri Lanka,” Anton said.

Tyler Giannini, a co-director of the Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, said the letter “fits into a broader effort” to advocate for increased accountability in Sri Lanka, which has been perpetrating decades-long human rights abuses that culminated in the killing of tens of thousands of civilians in 2009.

“There’s really two reasons to do this letter,” Giannini said. “To make sure that accountability doesn’t go off the international agenda, and also to prevent future abuses, because there’s heightened risks of things deteriorating pretty badly in the future under this new regime.”

Thomas Becker, a signatory of the letter and a former clinician at the Law School, said he believes the growing wave of ethno-nationalism and persecution of minorities is influenced by a lack of accountability in places across the globe, including Sri Lanka.

“Impunity breeds impunity and justice breeds justice,” Becker said.

James L. Cavallaro ’84, the executive director of the University Network for Human Rights and former professor at the Law School, said it is “important that the UN re-engage” with efforts to hold Sri Lanka accountable.

“This is a space where a state like Sri Lanka is susceptible to international pressure, and it’s sort of fallen off the international radar screen,” Cavallaro said. “People have sort of moved on in a way that is not healthy, in a way that is not good for international law, for accountability.”

Nushin Sarkarati, senior staff attorney for the Center for Justice and Accountability, said it is “up to the member states now” to determine whether the world will hold Sri Lanka accountable.

“I hope they see that there is a groundswell of support for a new resolution,” Sarkarati said. “We want them to recognize that various NGOs are all supportive of this action moving forward and it's up to them to now vote in favor.”

Anton wrote in an emailed statement that, as the daughter of an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and a Tamil father, she has witnessed how “the legacy of mass atrocity is passed down through generations” and the “indelible mark that impunity leaves on survivor communities.”

“Witnessing the pain and reliving of trauma that international inaction has brought on my own family and community has made this type of work even more frustrating at times,” Anton wrote. “But it also serves as a constant reminder that regardless of what happens this month in Geneva, and no matter how much time has passed, justice matters.”

—Staff writer Emmy M. Cho can be reached at emmy.cho@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Maria G. Gonzalez can be reached at maria.gonzalez@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariaagrace1.

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