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Myanmar at the International Court of Justice
Myanmar at the International Court of Justice
Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena (front) stands for the national anthem during a ceremony to swear in Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party, as Sri Lanka's new prime minister, Colombo, 21 August 2015. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawat
Report 278 / Asia

Sri Lanka: Jumpstarting the Reform Process

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.

Executive Summary

The unexpected chance for lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka that followed President Maithripala Sirisena’s January 2015 election faces increasing turbulence. Initial moves by Sirisena’s government halted and began to reverse the slide into authoritarianism and family rule under Mahinda Rajapaksa. Its reform agenda is ambitious: restoring the rule-of-law and ending impunity for corruption and abuse of power; a new constitution; a complex package of post-war reconciliation and justice mechanisms agreed with the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC); and major policy changes to jump-start a beleaguered economy. Progress, however, has been slower than key constituencies expected and lacks the coherence and resources needed to sustain it. The “national unity” government expanded the political centre and isolated hard-line nationalists, but the window for change has begun to close. Seizing Sri Lanka’s unprecedented opportunity for reform requires bolder and better coordinated policies, backed by a public relations campaign to restore sagging popular support.

The stuttering progress strains ties between the government and the constituencies that brought it to power. Tamils in the north and east voted overwhelmingly for Sirisena but are increasingly doubtful he will fulfil his reconciliation and justice promises. Many Sinhala “good governance” activists criticise the failure to follow through on rule-of-law measures, continued cases of alleged nepotism and corruption and what they consider the lethargic pursuit of corruption and criminal investigations. As the budget deficit grows and currency reserves dwindle, belt-tightening has been blocked or scaled back due to protests. At the same time, strains are growing between Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The small window for threading the political needles essential for reforms is shrinking. 

Institutional factors hamper progress: too few staff and too little expertise, particularly on reconciliation and transitional justice issues, multiple power centres and unwieldy, often overlapping ministries, and the different priorities and governance styles of president and prime minister. Governance reforms are slowed by need to work through bureaucrats and politicians implicated in past abuses, some of whom were given cabinet posts to help the government achieve the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to approve a new constitution.

Boldness is limited by Sirisena’s struggle to counter the faction loyal to ex-President Rajapaksa within his SLFP, especially in upcoming local elections. Reacting defensively to Sinhala nationalists’ attacks against Sirisena’s relatively modest reconciliation gestures and proposed constitutional reform and scared of giving opponents ammunition or angering the military and security services, the government has returned only a small portion of military-occupied land and released few Tamil detainees. 

Seven years after the end of the civil war in May 2009, issues of reconciliation and accountability remain largely unaddressed. The government appears to be backtracking on transitional justice plans, particularly the role of foreign judges and experts. The enormity of the crimes, especially in the final weeks of the war, makes them impossible to ignore but hard for the military and most Sinhalese to acknowledge or accept responsibility for. Mechanisms promised to the UNHRC feed Sinhala nationalist suspicions, while attempts to reassure Sinhalese and the military encourage doubts among Tamils about government willingness to pursue justice for wartime atrocities or back constitutional changes that satisfy legitimate Tamil aspirations for meaningful autonomy. 

To hold its coalition together and meet UNHRC obligations, the government must sequence reforms carefully, speeding progress on some fronts to rebuild public confidence, while committing resources to build support and institutional capacity for deeper and harder steps, particularly making progress on the critically important special court for prosecuting war crimes. Better communication and cooperation between president and prime minister, more transparent policymaking and clearer lines of authority are essential.

To rebuild confidence among Tamil communities in the north and east, the government must quickly release detainees and military-occupied land, begin credible inquiries into the fate of the disappeared, investigate and end abuses and repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). For these and other reforms to be sustainable, the president and prime minister will have to assert authority over the military and national security apparatus, including by developing a credible security sector reform plan. If they are serious about constitutional changes that will contribute to a lasting solution to the ethnic conflict, Sirisena and key ministers must make a much stronger public case for greater devolution of power.

Ending impunity and restoring rule-of-law are concern to the whole country, as seen in the popularity of good governance and anti-corruption citizen movements in the Sinhala south. To resonate more broadly with all ethnic groups and regions, measures for addressing the war’s legacy should be presented by the government and civil society as an integral part of the rule-of-law and good governance agenda. Moves to prosecute key cases of corruption and political killing under the Rajapaksa regime need to be backed by a sustained public relations campaign that articulates a broad vision of a reformed state, the links between the various initiatives and the benefits they bring all communities. 

As longstanding dysfunctional political dynamics reassert themselves, the government’s ability to distinguish itself from the Rajapaksa era, which is essential to its political survival, has begun to fade. If ethnic and religious chauvinists in all communities are not to grow stronger and belief in democratic reform that Sirisena’s election reflected and encouraged is to be rekindled, the government must make a concerted push to jump-start the flagging reform process.

Recommendations

To strengthen rule-of-law and democratic governance 

To the government of Sri Lanka: 

  1. Ratify the UN Disappearances Convention and pass enabling legislation criminalising disappearances; terminate the Paranagama commission on missing persons and transfer its investigation files to dedicated police investigation units. 
     
  2. Pass the pending Right to Information (RTI) Act and legislation to establish a well-resourced and empowered Audit Commission. 
     
  3. Repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and replace it, in consultation with lawyers and human rights defenders, with legislation in line with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations; and develop and publish guidelines for expediting cases against existing PTA detainees and releasing those against whom there is insufficient evidence to bring charges.
     
  4. Overhaul the Victims and Witness Protection Act, in consultation with human rights activists, to establish a well-resourced witness protection authority fully independent of police and security forces.
     
  5. End the longstanding conflict of interest in the Attorney General’s Department by establishing a permanent, independent special prosecutor for serious human rights cases in which state officials are alleged perpetrators. 
     
  6. Establish a clear focal point in the Attorney General’s Department, staffed by state counsels vetted for conflict of interest or involvement in past cover-ups, to oversee and prosecute emblematic cases of political killings and abduction currently under investigation.

To promote reconciliation, reestablish effective civil administration in the north and east and begin security sector reform

To the government of Sri Lanka: 

  1. Take immediate steps to end remaining military involvement in civil administration; remove the military from all shops, farms, hotels and other commercial businesses; and immediately suspend construction or expansion of military camps in the north and east.
     
  2. Establish, in consultation with communities and the military, transparent principles, processes and timetables for the return of military-occupied land or payment of compensation for land that is not to be returned. 
     
  3. End intimidating monitoring of civil society activists and ex-detainees by security services and appoint an independent, multi-ethnic, well-resourced internal affairs unit to investigate credible allegations of arbitrary detentions, abductions and torture in custody.
     
  4. Begin developing a longer-term plan for comprehensive security sector reform that includes job training for demobilised personnel; and devise and implement in the short term policies for handling individuals credibly alleged to be responsible for serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law.  

To support constitutional reform needed for lasting political stability

To the government of Sri Lanka:

  1. Launch a public outreach campaign, led by the president and prime minster, in support of expanded devolution of power to provinces.
     
  2. Support a mixed electoral system that maintains proportionality and the influence of smaller, regionally-dispersed parties through use of double-ballots.

To address the complex demands of transitional justice processes

To the government of Sri Lanka: 

  1. Reaffirm publicly the government’s commitment to full implementation of the 1 October 2015 UN Human Rights Council resolution and take initial steps to build capacity and public support for effective transitional justice, by:
     
    1. launching a coordinated public outreach campaign – involving the offices of the president and prime minister, the Reconciliation Secretariat (SCRM), National Unity Office (ONUR) and national dialogue ministry – to promote the value of transitional justice mechanisms and highlight links to broader rule-of-law measures, beginning with immediate distribution of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) report in all three languages once Tamil and Sinhala translations are available;
       
    2. giving the public consultation process adequate resources and endorsement and presenting draft legislative proposals to it for popular input, with a transparent timeframe for final submission to the parliament; 
       
    3. publishing draft legislation for the Missing Persons Office and inviting active input from families of the missing and disappeared and other stakeholders;
       
    4. establishing a timeline for training judges, lawyers and investigators for participation in the special war crimes court and for passing legislation establishing command responsibility as a mode of criminal liability and incorporating war crimes and crimes against humanity into national law; and
       
    5. requesting the OHCHR to recommend international prosecutors and judges for participation in the special court as committed to in the resolution. 

Colombo/Brussels, 18 May 2016

A billboard depicting Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Su Kyi with the three military ministers in front of a background showing the building of the International Court of Justice in The Hague is displayed along a main road in Hpa-an, Karen State. AFP
Q&A / Asia

Myanmar at the International Court of Justice

On 10 December, the International Court of Justice convened to hear an opening request in a genocide case filed against Myanmar for its atrocities against Rohingya Muslims. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Richard Horsey looks at the legal and diplomatic stakes of these proceedings.

Why is Myanmar before the International Court of Justice?

The Gambia has lodged a case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal UN judicial body based in The Hague, alleging violations of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (usually known as the Genocide Convention) in Myanmar’s treatment of ethnic Rohingya Muslims. The charges stem from atrocities committed by Myanmar’s security forces in northern Rakhine State, which have forced over 700,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh since August 2017. The Gambia, relying on the Convention’s provision that the ICJ can adjudicate disputes over such charges, brought this case on behalf of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. The allegations against Myanmar include responsibility for genocidal acts against the Rohingya and failure to prevent and punish genocide, among others.

The Gambia has also asked the ICJ to order “provisional measures”, the equivalent of an injunction in domestic law, authorising steps to protect the parties’ rights pending the case’s final adjudication. Hearings at the court from 10-12 December – at which Aung San Suu Kyi will represent Myanmar – are dealing with this request for provisional measures. Both The Gambia and Myanmar have retained top international lawyers as counsel.

The allegations against Myanmar include responsibility for genocidal acts against the Rohingya and failure to prevent and punish genocide, among others.

Two other countries – the Netherlands and Canada – have indicated that they will support The Gambia’s case. They have called on all state parties to the Genocide Convention to do the same. One possibility is that the Netherlands and Canada will become “intervening states”, a status that would give them access to court documents and the right to participate in oral proceedings, without being formal parties to the dispute.

A decision on provisional measures is expected within weeks. But the case itself will probably be long and convoluted, with the court taking years to render its final decision. The diplomatic and reputational impact is thus likely to be most immediate and consequential.

Why is Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s top civilian leader, speaking at the ICJ hearing this week and what does she hope to achieve?

In addition to a legal team, states involved in ICJ cases must nominate an “agent” empowered to represent the state and make commitments on its behalf. Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s agent, in her capacity as foreign minister (she also holds the title of state counsellor). A justice minister or an attorney general normally plays this role; it is extremely rare for a political figure of her prominence to do so. Aung San Suu Kyi likely feels that as the country’s de facto leader she has the primary responsibility to respond to The Gambia’s claims, and also that she is the person best qualified to do so – given her fluent English and experience on the world stage.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s public statements over the last two years, and what she is known to have said in private, suggest that she believes no genocide has occurred in the Rohingya case. She thinks that, on the contrary, the outside world has deeply misunderstood and exaggerated the Rohingya crisis. She no doubt intends to use the legal setting in The Hague to try to set the record straight. She also no doubt understands that the eyes of the world will be on her at this pivotal moment for Myanmar. The global audience – particularly in the West – will expect her to go much farther than she has in previous speeches in acknowledging the security forces’ wrongdoing and committing to address it. It remains to be seen how far she will go in this direction.

What impact will Aung San Suu Kyi’s appearance in The Hague have within Myanmar?

Views on the Rohingya crisis inside Myanmar are almost diametrically opposed to those outside the country. The near ubiquitous narrative in the country – coming from its leaders and promulgated by the local media – is that the outside world misunderstands what has happened with the Rohingya. Myanmar thinks that its primary problem is therefore one of communication: how to explain the “real situation” more clearly and effectively.

Since The Gambia filed the ICJ case on 11 November, and Aung San Suu Kyi decided to represent Myanmar personally in The Hague, a wave of nationalist fervour has swept the country. Billboards and mass rallies endorse her mission at the ICJ; even the military – her nemesis during fifteen years of house arrest – is giving her its unequivocal backing. The civilian government is likewise soliciting vocal support from the people for the state counsellor’s defence of the nation. President Win Myint’s wife even conducted a ritual at Aung San Suu Kyi’s “eternal peace pagoda” in Naypyitaw, invoking the spirits to confer success on her efforts.

Since [...] Aung San Suu Kyi decided to represent Myanmar personally in The Hague, a wave of nationalist fervour has swept the country.

This outpouring of support will play well for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the November 2020 elections, though electoral advantage is unlikely to be her primary motivation. Her stance for Myanmar in The Hague could also lead to a slight thaw in the chilly relations between the civilian government and the military. But the risk is that unleashing the forces of narrow nationalism will not only silence voices calling for human rights protections and greater tolerance for diversity in the country but also postpone any honest national reckoning with what happened to the Rohingya. Such an accounting is the only way that Myanmar can get out of its international legal and diplomatic predicament.

What impact will the ICJ case have on international perceptions of Myanmar?

A moment of truth is fast approaching. Part of Aung San Suu Kyi’s international audience at The Hague will consist of some Asian governments that are determined to maintain close bilateral ties with Naypyitaw. She might say enough to satisfy them, but she will have more difficulty meeting the expectations of Western governments. It is hard to imagine, moreover, given the documentation of the Rohingya’s plight, that she will convince the many sceptical observers in the global media and civil society that Myanmar’s state is misunderstood and unfairly maligned. In defending Myanmar as part of proceedings live-streamed worldwide, she will necessarily be defending the military against genocide charges. Anyone can easily compare the substance of this defence with the numerous third-party reports about why so many Rohingya fled northern Myanmar and how they are living stuck in Bangladesh. Anyone can also read about the Rohingya who continue to live in precarious circumstances at home. Myanmar could lose in the court of international public opinion well before the ICJ makes any legal ruling.