International law exists partly to deter the worst actions by governments. But so many violations of international law go unpunished. Much has been done by international actors such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and its sponsors, and national courts invoking universal jurisdiction such as Spain’s and Britain’s to end impunity. But in general, international law is very hard to enforce and impunity is the rule, not the exception.
That is why the opening of a new chapter in the debate about war crimes committed by Sri Lanka’s government against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) might be pointless. Several groups, including Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group, accuse the Sri Lankan government of war crimes. But while these groups can investigate, put together reports, publish findings and so on, they have no power to bring criminals to justice.
Leaving aside the fact that both the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers probably violated international law, the remaining question is, does it matter? Will anyone be brought to justice over it? The ICC has done a reasonably good job so far, with the help of national authorities, in prosecuting the most egregious offenders, but the fact that many of its indictees, such as Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, run free, is testament to the challenges the system has yet to overcome. But the progress made since World War Two has been impressive. It should continue. All Sri Lankan leaders, Tamil and Sinhalese, who violated human rights should be held accountable.