Sri Lanka’s Authoritarian Turn
20 Feb 2013
As the UN Human Rights Council prepares to open its 22nd session next week, the Sri Lankan government has made no meaningful progress on either reconciliation or accountability and instead has accelerated the country’s authoritarian turn, with attacks on the judiciary and political dissent that threaten long-term stability and peace.
Sri Lanka's Authoritarian Turn: The Need for International Action, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the government’s recent consolidation of power and sets out critical steps for an effective and coordinated international response.
“The Rajapaksa government’s politically motivated impeachment of the chief justice last month reveals both its intolerance of dissent and power sharing and the weakness of the political opposition”, says Alan Keenan, Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka Project Director. “By incapacitating the last institutional check on executive power, the government has crossed a threshold into new and dangerous terrain. It is threatening prospects for the eventual peaceful transfer of power through free and fair elections”.
Analysts and government critics have warned of Sri Lanka’s growing authoritarianism since the final years of the civil war, but the impeachment has considerably worsened the situation. The removal of the chief justice completes the “constitutional coup” initiated in September 2010 by the eighteenth amendment, which revoked presidential term limits and the independence of government oversight bodies.
Sri Lanka is faced with two worsening and interconnected governance crises. The dismantling of the independent judiciary and other democratic checks on the executive and military will inevitably feed the growing ethnic tension resulting from the absence of power sharing and the denial of minority rights. Both crises have deepened with the government’s refusal to comply with the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)’s March 2012 resolution on reconciliation and accountability. While it claims to have implemented many of the recommendations of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) – a key demand of the HRC – there has in fact been no meaningful progress.
The government has conducted no credible investigations into allegations of war crimes, disappearances or other serious human rights violations and has rejected the LLRC’s recommendations to establish a range of independent institutions for oversight and investigations.
The international community has a number of tools at its disposal to encourage Colombo to account for the deaths of up to 40,000 civilians in the final months of the war; to halt the current trajectory towards authoritarianism; and to build a country for all, not just some, Sri Lankans. Chief among these are the levers of the UN, including the HRC, Sri Lanka’s reliance on development assistance and the prestige of hosting the forthcoming heads of government meeting of the Commonwealth.
“Strong international action should begin with Sri Lanka’s immediate referral to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) and a new resolution from the HRC calling for concrete, time-bound actions to restore the rule of law, investigate alleged war crimes and rights abuses, and devolve power to Tamil and Muslim areas of the north and east”, says Paul Quinn-Judge, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “Sri Lankans of all ethnicities, who have struggled to preserve their democracy, deserve stronger international support”.