By Howard Varney & Piers Pigou

Veteran South African human rights campaigner, Yasmin Sooka, is in the crosshairs of efforts to discredit her by the Sri Lankan government. She, and her small non-governmental organisation – the International Truth and Justice Project – is accused of inciting violence against the Sri Lankan state. Many of those who have worked with Yasmin over the last three decades reject these allegations and stand by her.

Fifty-three organisations and 153 individuals working in the field of international justice have signed a letter supporting South African human rights lawyer, Yasmin Sooka, who faces threats from the Sri Lankan government. She is being accused of conspiring against the state.

The threats came in a letter from the country’s intelligence chief, Major General Suresh Sallay, who demanded $5-million in compensation for alleged defamation. A concerted vilification campaign has been launched against Sooka in Sri Lanka, with lawyers for Sallay holding a press conference outside the United Nations office there to accuse civil society organisations like Sooka’s of inciting terrorism and separatism.

International rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch signed the support letter, along with all the major groups working on universal jurisdiction cases globally, and a wide range of prominent African rights bodies.

Leading jurists from around the world have also expressed their support for Sooka. They include prosecutors, judges, two former high commissioners for human rights, UN experts, UN special rapporteurs and ambassadors.

Yasmin Sooka may be better known back home in South Africa for her work on apartheid-era torture and murder cases, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and, most recently, for chairing the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan. But she also remains one of the leading figures countering government impunity in Sri Lanka.

This stems from her work in 2011 as one of three experts appointed by former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, to make recommendations about accountability during the final period of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009.

Witnesses and victims continued to approach her for help, leading to the establishment of her NGO, the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), which has led the work on documenting post-war sexual violence committed by the Sri Lankan security forces, especially against men.

In the absence of a promised hybrid court to hold perpetrators of violations from Sri Lanka’s multiple conflicts accountable, the ITJP has used the evidence it has meticulously documented to litigate internationally against some of those responsible for gross violations of human rights.

In 2017, the ITJP partnered with Latin American rights groups to file a war crimes case against a former senior military commander who had been given a diplomatic posting in the region. Brazilian courts found there was jurisdiction for the case and Chilean authorities appointed a prosecutor to investigate, prompting the general-turned-ambassdor to flee back to Sri Lanka for sanctuary.

In 2019, the ITJP worked with a US law firm to assist 11 Sri Lankan torture victims to sue (now president) Gotabaya Rajapaksa for damages in California; the case was tactically withdrawn once Gotabaya was elected president, which afforded him head of state immunity.

The ITJP has also been key in supporting the vetting and screening of UN peacekeepers from Sri Lanka, resulting in one commander being repatriated from Mali.

The international support letter describes Sooka as “one of the foremost global authorities on transitional justice, reconciliation and reparations”. However, lawyers for Sri Lanka’s intelligence chief have alleged that Sooka’s work is undermining transitional justice and accountability in their country.

It is a charge that holds no water, and exposes the crude political objective of trying to deflect from the human rights issues by attempting to silence the messenger. It’s a familiar tactic of those who want to maintain a culture of impunity.

The outpouring of support for Sooka’s work on accountability and her staunch support for victims and survivors was visible from the letters that accompanied many of the endorsements.

A former commissioner of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, John HT Stewart, wrote that, “Sri Lankan authorities need to look no further than within themselves, do much soul searching and address the questions of accountability and justice for victims of the Sri Lankan civil war.

“No amount of smear campaigns or vicious propaganda, or threats to her freedom of movement or to her life, can prove sufficient to impeach her credibility or that of her work.”

Stewart concluded: “I stand with Yasmin.” DM/MC

Howard Varney is a practicing advocate at the Johannesburg Bar, specialising in human rights, constitutional, and administrative law. He is a senior programme adviser with International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).

Piers Pigou is a senior consultant for Southern Africa at the International Crisis Group (ICG). He was a member of the Truth Commission’s investigation team and has conducted investigations for the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP).