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.
President Sirisena continued to struggle to win support of his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) on constitutional reform; requested Constitutional Assembly (CA) steering committee draft new, shorter version of its interim report containing key elements of new constitution. After meeting consultation task force on reconciliation mechanisms 30 Jan, Sirisena reportedly confirmed transitional justice will not be pursued until after completion of constitutional reforms process. FM 7 Feb argued new constitution would be “most potent weapon for non-recurrence” of conflict and will be prioritised over accountability. FM 28 Feb told UN Human Rights Council a draft law for “Truth-Seeking Commission” would be presented to cabinet within next two months. European Parliament’s international trade committee began consideration of European Commission’s recommendation to grant GSP+ trade benefits to Sri Lankan; decision due by mid-May. Govt took some potentially positive steps on repeal of controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), including Right to Information Act, which became operational 3 Feb, and formally gazetting draft law criminalising enforced disappearances 9 Feb. Police 18-19 Feb arrested five military intelligence officers for 2008 abduction and beating of journalist; later told court same hit squad responsible for 2009 murder of editor Lasantha Wickrematunga, with police reported to believe they acted under orders of then-defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Tamil majority north and east saw wave of protest, including demanding return of land built on by army in Kepapilavu and action on missing persons, and “Tamils, Rise” demonstration demanding inter alia federal constitution. Under increasing pressure, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader 23 Feb told parliament issues of land, detainees, missing persons and reparation needed to be addressed urgently if current peace to last.
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.
There is work to be done by both Sinhala and Tamil activists [in Sri Lanka], in persuading Sinhalese voters to support the new constitution and make the case for a shared interest in ending impunity.
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