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SA invites Sri Lanka to study tour on reconciliation

- Kholekile Mnisi

The South African government invites Sri Lankan officials with links to alleged war criminals for a study tour on reconciliation and transitional justice

The Sri Lankan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ali Sabry and the Minister of Justice, Prison Affairs and Constitutional Reforms Minister Dr Wijeyadasa Rajapakse came on a working visit to South Africa at the invitation of South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Dr Naledi Pandor. The purpose of the visit according to the press statement was to learn from the South African experience in regard to the establishment of, and work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to promote reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

While the stated intent is lofty, the invitation to the Sri Lankan officials by the government of South Africa is concerning, in view of allegations of on-going human rights violations, the suppression of civil society in Sri Lanka and a failure by the Sri Lankan government to ensure criminal accountability for gross human rights violations perpetrated during the 1983 - 2009 civil war. The United Nations said that some of these violations may amount to serious international crimes such as crimes against humanity and war crimes. The United Nations estimated that 40 000 to 70 000 people died in five months in a tiny corner of the north-east of the island, in a short space of time.

The two officials who have been invited to come to South Africa are closely linked to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former president of Sri Lanka, who has been implicated in serious international crimes. Recently, a case was brought against him on the basis of the principle of universal jurisdiction in Singapore for his alleged role in the gross human rights violations and serious international crimes committed in Sri Lanka during the last stages of the civil war. A separate case was brought against Rajapaksa in the US in 2019. During his time in office, Rajapaksa put his close allies in positions of power. Some of these people have been sanctioned by countries including the United States and Canada for their alleged involvement in the commission of gross human rights violations.

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ali Sabry was the personal lawyer of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and acted on his behalf in multiple corruption cases. Before becoming a Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sabry was the Minister of Justice, which raised serious concerns of a conflict of interest given that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the President at that time. Dr Wijeyadasa Rajapakse admitted that he had intervened with the Attorney General to prevent the arrest of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the Avant Garde floating armoury case.

In October 2015, the government of Sri-Lanka co-sponsored a United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution, resolution 30/1. In this resolution, the government promised to implement measures including four transitional justice processes i.e. a mechanism to search for the disappeared, an office for reparations, a truth commission and a judicial mechanism. To date, only one of these measures, the Office of the Missing Persons, has been established. On 24 March 2023, the UN Committee on Human Rights in its Concluding Observations on the sixth period report of Sri Lanka called on the Sri Lanka government to “intensify its efforts to ensure accountability for all past human rights violations” and to “refrain from appointing or promoting alleged perpetrators of human rights violations to high positions in the government…”

The manner in which the government of Sri Lanka failed to implement its undertaking to establish credible transitional justice mechanisms, in line with the co-sponsored UN resolutions, calls into question its bona fides. In view of the continued human rights violations in Sri Lanka, the South African undersigned civil society organisations who are members of the South African Coalition for Transitional Justice (SACTJ) call upon the South Africa’s government to reconsider its invitation to officials from Sri Lanka to discuss transitional justice processes. We call upon the South African government to instead engage with Sri Lanka to ensure that the government ends the prevalent impunity for gross human rights violations and continuing suppression of dissent and repression of civil society organisations, and creates an environment conducive to a meaningful transitional justice process in line with the recommendations by various UN entities. CSOs are critical role players in the design, setting up and operationalisation of any transitional justice mechanism. In its interactions with Sri Lanka, the South African government should insist that perception of fairness, transparency, inclusivity and legitimacy of the transitional justice process is critical for its success. By extending the invitation to two individuals who are seen as lacking credibility and legitimacy given their close ties with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the South African government is legitimising a process that is deeply flawed.

For media queries, please contact:

Mx Kholekile Mnisi, Communication & Media Specialist at the Foundation for Human Rights: or +27 65 613 0977. 

This statement is endorsed by:

  • Foundation for Human Rights (FHR)
  • Human Rights Media Centre (HRMC)
  • Khulumani Support Group – Galela Campaign Violence Prevention Agency (VPA)
  • Centre for the Study Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR)
  • Open Secrets (OS)
  • Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS)