As the United Nations Human Rights Council meets in Geneva this month, it’s time to assess how far Sri Lanka has come since last year’s passage of a landmark resolution to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights.
Parliament again postponed debate on Constitutional Assembly steering committee report that would outline proposed new constitution, now scheduled 23 Feb. Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) ministers continued to state positions including on devolution at odds with those of United National Party (UNP), President Sirisena and leadership of Tamil National Alliance (TNA). SLFP ministers also announced support for Sirisena to run for second term in 2020, despite his repeated claims he will serve only one term. Consultations Task Force (CTF), charged with national consultations on reconciliation and transitional justice, 3 Jan released 700-page report based on over 7,000 submissions from across island, with recommendations for all four promised transitional justice “mechanisms”: office of missing persons, office of reparations, truth commission and special court. Neither president nor PM attended launch. Cabinet spokesperson 4 Jan rejected CTF recommendation to include at least one foreign judge on each special court trial; justice minister 5 Jan stated he had “no confidence” in report, rejecting it as work of NGOs. In 11 Jan speech in London, FM Mangala Samaraweera announced govt’s intention to negotiate “technical rollover” resolution at March UN Human Rights Council (HRC), which would extend terms of current resolution for additional period; also announced law to establish “truth seeking commission” would be finalised in time to be presented to HRC. European Commission 11 Jan announced support for renewal of GSP+ trade benefits to Sri Lanka; stressed need for Sri Lanka to demonstrate further progress on implementing 27 human rights conventions, particularly need to make anti-terrorism legislation consistent with International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Cabinet 10 Jan reportedly approved revised draft of proposed Counter Terrorism Act, designed to replace Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA); reportedly removes several repressive clauses but leaves definition of terrorism broad. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture released report 23 Jan noting “total impunity” and a “culture of torture” in the police and recommending govt repeal PTA and review draft legislation to replace it.
Seven years after its civil war ended, Sri Lanka’s democratic space has reopened but strains are building from a powerful opposition, institutional overlaps and a weakened economy. To make reforms a real success, the prime minister and president should cooperate with openness and redouble efforts to tackle legacies of war like impunity, Tamil detainees and military-occupied land.
Sri Lanka’s 17 August parliamentary elections will test the country’s fragile democratic opening. With the hardline Sinhala nationalism of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa challenging the “good governance” agenda of the United National Party and President Sirisena, the outcome will affect chances for reconciliation and lasting resolution of the country’s long-running conflicts.
Sri Lanka’s upcoming presidential election promises more competition than was initially anticipated. But with that comes a great risk of violence. Long-term stability and post-war reconciliation can only be achieved through a peaceful election resulting in a government committed to serving the interests of all Sri Lankans.
Despite recent moves meant to show progress towards post-war reconciliation and respect for human rights, Sri Lanka’s government has not altered the authoritarian direction of its policies, and the rights and security of all communities remain under threat.
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.
The Sri Lankan government’s refusal to negotiate seriously with Tamil political leaders or consider reasonable forms of power sharing is heightening ethnic tensions and damaging prospects for sustainable peace.
China sold a lot of weapons and lent a lot of money to Sri Lanka and remained a useful ally even in the Human Rights Council, all through the end of the war.
There was always a doubt about the commitment of the [Sri Lankan] president and prime minister. As time goes on, those doubts have grown.
With the UN’s help, Sri Lanka could yet build a state that respects the rule of law and protects the rights of all its citizens.
The bloom is off two years of hope that the rule of law can be restored for all and that a 60-year failure to grant Tamils a fair share of power, in the Sinhala majority island, can be rectified.
Originally published in The Diplomat Magazine
Originally published in Inside Story
Originally published in The Interpreter