Human Rights in Sri Lanka in the Post-Conflict Period
Human Rights in Sri Lanka in the Post-Conflict Period
Sri Lanka’s Uprising Forces Out a President but Leaves System in Crisis
Sri Lanka’s Uprising Forces Out a President but Leaves System in Crisis
Speech / Asia

Human Rights in Sri Lanka in the Post-Conflict Period

Submission to the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament, Meeting of 6 December 2010 – Agenda Item 5: “Exchange of views on Human Rights in Sri Lanka in the post-conflict period”, by Alan Keenan, Senior Analyst and Sri Lanka Project Director, International Crisis Group.

I would like to thank the committee for holding this important hearing and for inviting me to present the views of the International Crisis Group on the state of human rights in Sri Lanka. At the start of President Rajapaksa’s second six-year term, the political situation in Sri Lanka remains deeply worrying. The unique opportunity the Sri Lankan government has to build a lasting and a just peace after the defeat of the LTTE is rapidly being lost. In what follows I will offer our analysis of a number of issues of concern to the subcommittee.

1. First, with regard to the resettlement of the nearly 300,000 people displaced from their homes by the last two years of fighting, the large majority have left the military-run camps in which they were locked for months. This is good. Nonetheless, according to the most recent government figures, available from the UN, more than 20,000 people remain in the camps and another 70,000 live with host families and are not back on their own land. Those who have returned home face huge problems, including a lack of housing and other infrastructure, few economic opportunities, and difficulties farming their land and fishing off the coasts. There is little evidence that the Sri Lankan government is approaching their problems with the requisite openness, urgency and resources. This can be seen in the damaging restrictions placed on the activities of local and international humanitarian NGOs. Agencies are currently permitted to do little more than deliver tangible material goods, for which the government oftens take credit. None of the crucial post-war work of rebuilding community organisations, dealing with the psychosocial damage from the war, tracing missing persons, or attending to women’s specific needs – is officially permitted. In this context, it is important that ECHO (the European Commission’s humanitarian aid department) continues to operate in the north and east, though the work they can do there is extremely limited.

What humanitarian and development activities are allowed are closely monitored by the tens of thousands of troops deployed throughout the northern province, and all important decisions are made by the military and predominantly Sinhalese officials in Colombo, chiefly by the Presidential Task Force headed by the President’s brother Basil Rajapaksa. In this context, the growing numbers of Sinhalese moving to the north, in a process that is anything but transparent, has fed fears by Tamils that the government plans to change the ethnic make-up of the Tamil-majority north. The government’s repeated promises that all of the 70,000 or more Muslims forcibly evicted from the north by the LTTE in 1990 will be allowed to return home is good news. However, the fact that there is very little involvement by Muslim and Tamils community groups and independent politicians in the process of resettlment is sowing the seeds of renewed ethnic conflict, especially in the face of competing land claims. This is made worse by the government’s failure to establish a transparent and equitable process for negotiating land disputes in the north, of which there are already many.

2. Of the estimated 12,000 people who surrendered or were detained at the end of the war on suspicion of involvement with the LTTE, many, perhaps most, have now been released. The latest numbers we have been able to obtain – despite the lack of public registers – suggest that some 5,400 remain in detention, with 600-700 of these identified for legal prosecution. While it is positive that most seem now to have been released from arbirtary and unmonitored detention by the military, we have been receiving worrying reports that some of those who have been released to their home areas are subject to frequent and arbitary questioning by the police and military. Here, the absence of independent monitoring of either the detention or “reintegration” of suspected LTTE cadres remains very worrying. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was ordered last month to close its remaining offices in the northern province, after previously being blocked from working in government detention camps for LTTE suspects. The ICRC’s expertise in tracing the thousands of missing people in the north and east is and will be sorely missed.

3. Since the end of the war and the active counter-insurgency campaign, there have been much fewer reports of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. This is a positive change. Nonetheless, reports of abductions, disappearances and politically motivated killings do continue to be received, and the terror machine established to destroy the LTTE remains in place. There have still been no proper investigations, much less prosecutions, in any of the thousands of disappearances or more high profile political kilings from the last years of the war. The country continues to be governed under a state of emergency more than eighteen months after war’s end. Emergency regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) continue to be used to detain LTTE suspects without trial and to harass and jail the Rajapaksa regime’s political opponents – whether retired general Sarath Fonseka or student activists linked to the leftist-nationalist JVP party. Many of the emergency powers the government proudly proclaimed to have removed when negotiating with the EU over GSP+ in fact continue to be applied through the PTA. Sri Lanka’s human rights crisis thus continues to affect all communities: Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil. It is important for the EU to continue to fund the difficult and dangerous work of local human rights groups – a little money goes a long way here. Diplomatic support for human rights defenders can be invaluable, even life saving. EU member states should lend much greater and active support for asylum seekers and for emergency visas for human rights advocates and journalists under threat.

4. Democratic governance more generally has deteriorated since the end of the war. This can be seen not only in the arrest and politically motivated trials of Gen. Fonseka, but even more ominously in the passing of the 18th Amendment to the constitution, which amounts to a de facto constitutional coup. Having obtained a two-thirds majority in parliament through various questionable means, the President was able to push the change through with very little debate in parliament or serious scrutiny by the courts. The amendment removes most of the few remaining checks on his power and removes the two-term limit on holding the presidency, which gives Rajapaksa a very real chance of remaining indefinitely in power.

5. Prospects for reconciliation between ethnic communities continue to be undermined by the government’s lack of serious interest in constitutional reforms that would address the political marginalisation of Tamil-speaking people. Occasional meetings between the President and leaders of the Tamil National Alliance and the pro-government alliance of Tamil parties known as the Tamil Political Forum are positive. To date, however, there is still no sign of any structured and inclusive process of negotiations or constitutional dialogues. Indeed, President Rajapaksa has made clear – most recently in a interview with The Hindu newspaper – that his vision for “decentralisaing power” is extremely limited and is not likely to include any devolution of power to the provincial level, as long requested by Sri Lanka’s minority parties. Instead, there are signs that even the limited devolution now enshrined in the13th Amendment to the constitution could well be reduced further.

6. With respect to the Presidential commission on “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation” – widely known as the LLRC –Crisis Group remains convinced that the process fails to meet the criteria necessary for it to contibute either to reconciliation or to legal accountability for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

First of all, it is important to note that the bulk of the hearings before the commission have featured government and military officials or witnesses sympathetic to the government’s policies, none of whose presentations have been seriously challenged by commission members. There have been relatively few sittings in the north and east, and none so far in Sinhala majority areas outside Colombo. When the commission has gone to the north and east, many of those who were able to speak on the record or file written submissions reported the disappearances of their family members after being taken away by armed groups working with the government, or after being detained by the police and army. This includes numeorus LTTE leaders seen surrendering to the Sri Lankan military and not heard of since. The commission has also heard testimony confirming government shelling of hospitals and civilians, as well as reports of grave abuses of the civilian population by the LTTE. To date, the evidence presented by average citizens in the north confirms the claims made in Crisis Group’s May 2010 report on War Crimes in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, the commission has failed to launch any investigation into attacks on civilians.

We believe the proceedings of the LLRC and the government’s political use of the commission bear out the decision by Crisis Group not to accept the commission’s invitation to testify before it. When declining their offer, we expressed our criticisms of: 1) the commission’s lack of independence; 2) its lack of witness protection; 3) the absence of any mandate to address allegations of war crimes; and 4) the lack of supportive environment, especially the institutionalised impunity and the consistent failure of previous government commissions of inquiry. We believe all these concerns remain valid.

The fact that the LLRC has provided a platform for some citizens in the north and east to testify about terrible crimes they witnessed or suffered, while positive, does not, by itself, turn the LLRC into a credible accountability or reconciliation process. There is little that could do so, given the lack of independence of the commissioners. More generally, the value of the LLRC depends on what it does in response to the information presented to it. Does it question the official version of events? Does it challenge the government's blanket denials about civilian deaths from government shelling or the execution of surrendered prisoners? Does it come up with meaningful responses to people's concerns that will significantly advance accountability or reconciliation? To date, the answer has been no, and unfortunately, we see no reason to believe this will change.

The government has made much of the commission’s interim recommendations submitted in October to President Rajapaksa. While most of the proposals have some merit, they will do little if anything to advance accountability and consist mostly of proposals that have a long history of being made by other panels and of not being implemented by successive governments. More striking is what the LLRC has not recommended: death certificates for those killed and monetary compensation for deaths and injuries and/or damaged, destroyed or looted houses and property in the north and east. These actions should be the starting point for any meaningful reconciliation process. To recommend such a policy, however, would involve challenging the government’s continued denial that any civilians were killed. Far from offering evidence that the Sri Lankan government is willing and able to address allegations of war crimes and grave human rights violations, the performance of the LLRC to date demonstrates the opposite: it shows that despite the evidence presented by its own citizens, the government continues to deny the problem or the need for legal accountability, and that an independent international investigation is more needed than ever.

7. Outside of the LLRC, the evidence continues to mount that there were grave crimes committed by both sides. The latest video released by Britain’s Channel Four, which appears to show executions of surrendered Tamils by government forces, needs thorough investigation. The comment by the new UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings that the incidents shown in the video should be properly investigated is encouraging, as is the fact that a copy of the video was shared with the UN Secretary-General’s panel of experts on Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately, recent activism by some elements of the Tamil diaspora in Europe – who have seized on the latest video releases to challenge the Sri Lankan government – have been marred by lack of attention to the clear evidence of large scale war crimes and atrocities committed by the LTTE, especially in the final months of fighting. The fact that large numbers gathered in London in December to protest President Rajapaksa’s alleged responsibility for war crimes while carrying the LTTE flag not only undermines the credibility of their support for human rights, it also does further damage to Tamil-Sinhala relations within Sri Lanka. Public displays of support for the LTTE anger most Sri Lankans and fuels the self-righteous rejection of international criticisms of the government’s policies. EU member states should be urging their Tamil diapora communities to examine the actions of the LTTE throughout the war and to initiate a process of reflection, across the diaspora, on the destructive effects on all communities from the LTTE’s suicidal and terror-filled brand of politics. Governments that have imposed bans on the public display of the LTTE flag should strictly enforce them.

8. The EU and its members states have an important opportunity – and responsibility – to support the work of the panel of experts appointed by the UN Secretary-General to advise him on options for accountability in Sri Lanka. In particular, the European Parliament and EU member states should urge the Secretary-General to make the panel’s report public. They should also enourage him to brief the Human Rights Council on the panel’s work and recommendations once he has received its report, which is currently expected in mid-January.

9. It is still too early to know the concrete effects of the EU’s decision to withdraw GSP+ trade benefits to Sri Lanka. The initial public data available is inconclusive. However, what is clear is that EU member states should be careful not to allow their bi-lateral trade relations with Sri Lanka to undercut the clear commitment to human rights that the EU expressed through its decision on GSP+. While not bound by the stringent human rights criteria of GSP+, EU states are nonetheless committed to respecting human rights principles in their trade policies. The careful, prolonged and transparent negotiation process the EU took with the Sri Lankan government over the implemention of the human rights obligations required to maintain GSP+ privileges was a rare example of principled international engagement with the Sri Lankan government. One can regret that the Sri Lankan government was not willing to apply its own laws and its own voluntarily adopted international obligations. One can also regret any negative impact this decision will have on Sri Lankan workers and businesses. But there is nothing the EU should regret about insisting that agreed upon human rights principles be respected.

10. Even after the conflict over GSP+ privileges, the EU still contributes a significant amount of development assistance to Sri Lanka, both directly and via its member states’ contributions to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Here EU member states should be working more actively to ensure that development projects, especially in the north and east, do not help institutionalise an unjust peace or fuel new grievances and violent conflict, particularly with regard to the use and ownership of land. Unfortunately, under current conditions in the north and east, where local communities and their Tamil and Muslim political representatives have little involvement in the physical and economic reconstruction taking place, it is extremely hard for international development assistance to be “conflict sensitive” without much more active monitoring and political engagement. EU member states and institutions should be using their political and financial influence to press the World Bank and the ADB to tie the delivery of their aid to more inclusive, participatory and democratic forms of planning and implementation, especially in the north and east. More generally, the EU and its member states should be working actively with India, Japan, the United States and other donors to develop a more coordinated and principled approach to their humanitarian and development assistance, to enhance their ability to influence the Sri Lankan government to adopt more democratic and rights-friendly policies.

Protestors celebrate after entering the building of Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's office, amid the country's economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka July 13, 2022. REUTERS / Adnan Abidi
Q&A / Asia

Sri Lanka’s Uprising Forces Out a President but Leaves System in Crisis

Crowds of ordinary Sri Lankans stormed the presidential residence on 9 July, compelling President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Alan Keenan lays out the background of these events and looks at what the immediate future may hold.

Sri Lanka has been through a tumultuous ten days. What exactly has happened?

In a stunning display of “people power”, massive crowds overcame large deployments of police and soldiers and other obstacles to storm the official residence and offices of the Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo on 9 July, leading the former to flee the country and both to agree to resign. Gotabaya’s eventual resignation on 14 July constitutes a major victory for Sri Lanka’s unprecedented island-wide protest movement. But these events leave an economy in freefall and a dysfunctional political system where the Rajapaksa family retains considerable influence. More political turbulence is to be expected.

For more than four months, citizens had been mounting constant, and almost entirely peaceful, protests demanding that Rajapaksa and his inner circle, who have dominated Sri Lankan politics for decades, step down for mismanagement of the economy and alleged corruption. In April and May, they succeeded in compelling Gotabaya’s nephew and three brothers – including Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was then prime minister, and Basil Rajapaksa, then finance minister – to leave their official positions. On 9 July, hundreds of thousands of people came together from all over Sri Lanka – walking long distances, commandeering trains and receiving free trips by bus – for what organisers had promised would be the “final push”. Gotabaya and Basil reportedly fled the presidential secretariat just minutes before the crowds entered.

The takeover of the presidential residence and office produced astonishing scenes, widely circulated on social media and global television, of huge, festive crowds of average Sri Lankans exploring luxurious spaces that until recently had been out of reach. Their playful, at times mocking, behaviour was generally tempered by respect for the properties as belonging to the people themselves.

Still, the culminating phase of the uprising saw increasing tensions between protesters and security forces and some violence. In the final hours of 9 July, someone set Wickremesinghe’s private residence on fire, largely destroying it. Police held protesters responsible, but conflicting reports from the scene make it hard to determine the fire’s source. The arson attack came soon after police officers were filmed brutally beating journalists covering protests near the prime minister’s house.

The demonstrators had been directing their anger at Wickremesinghe for some time. He had accepted the prime minister’s post on 11 May, when all others had turned it down following Mahinda’s resignation, a move widely seen as extending a lifeline to Gotabaya. Criticised for short-circuiting popular demands for Gotabaya’s removal and deep constitutional change, the new prime minister’s failed to deliver on his promise of political stability and efficient economic administration.

Following the takeover of his office and residence, Gotabaya’s grip on power became increasingly tenuous,.

Following the takeover of his office and residence, Gotabaya’s grip on power became increasingly tenuous, but it remained unclear how the situation would resolve itself. On the evening of 9 July, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, speaker of parliament and a Rajapaksa ally, announced that the president had agreed to resign in four days’ time, citing the need for a short transitional period. Meanwhile, Gotabaya’s whereabouts were shrouded in secrecy. Some local observers suggest that he and other family members found refuge at various military bases while they planned an exit from the country. They sought to leave by plane on 12 July but decided not to do so when immigration officers refused to allow Gotabaya, Basil and family members to use a private VIP entrance at Colombo’s main airport. Gotabaya and his wife ultimately flew out on a Sri Lankan air force jet early on 13 July, alighting briefly in Maldives (where their arrival brought protesters into the streets) before proceeding to Singapore the next day. From Singapore, Gotabaya sent his letter of resignation to the speaker of parliament at last.

The ultimate destination for Gotabaya and his entourage continues to be up in the air. The U.S., India and the United Arab Emirates all reportedly rejected Gotabaya’s travel requests. It is unclear where he will eventually settle, though he appears to be looking for a safe haven where he feels secure that he will not be extradited or prosecuted now that he has lost the protection that comes with being a head of state. Former president and prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, his son Namal and his brother Basil remain in Sri Lanka. On 15 July, the Supreme Court barred Mahinda and Basil from leaving the country while it hears a civil suit against them.

Gotabaya’s departure left behind a messy political situation with unresolved questions about the succession process. At first, these were exacerbated by the fact that he fled the country without either himself or Wickremesinghe having tendered their formal resignations. Tensions rose sharply when, on 13 July, the speaker of parliament – who had become Gotabaya’s de facto spokesperson – announced that Rajapaksa had designated Wickremesinghe to be acting president during his absence from Sri Lanka. Protesters and opposition parties decried the move as illegitimately exploiting a constitutional loophole.

Even before the formal appointment letter was issued, Wickremesinghe took a hard line. He declared a state of emergency and a curfew. He also proclaimed his intention to “eliminate the fascist threat” posed by the protesters, and later said the military should do “whatever is necessary to restore order” following the occupation of the prime minister’s office. With the security situation increasingly fraught, and clashes between security forces and protesters outside parliament, there were credible reports indicating that the government had authorised the military to use live ammunition to quell protests. Although the military – which to date has been remarkably restrained – appeared reluctant to cross that line, Sri Lanka seemed to be on the brink of a dramatic escalation in violence.

Fortunately, with Gotabaya’s resignation on 14 July, the danger of an extended leadership crisis was removed. Protesters ended their occupations of government buildings, and crowds across Sri Lanka celebrated the success of the aragalaya, or people’s struggle. On 15 July, Wickremesinghe was sworn in as acting president, a position he can hold only until parliament votes on a replacement. That vote must happen within 30 days; it is now scheduled for 20 July.

Parliament remains dominated by members of the Rajapaksa-controlled Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party, and Wickremesinghe, widely viewed as protecting the Rajapaksas’ interests, will contest with SLPP support. Should he win, it remains questionable whether any new government he forms will have the credibility with the public and protest movement to restore calm in a lasting way.

What has driven such a sustained protest movement and such large crowds to take direct action?

The protest movement is most directly a response to what Wickremesinghe has called an economic “collapse”, rooted in unprecedented tax cuts, a sudden ban on chemical fertiliser that devastated crop yields and widespread corruption, all further aggravated by the loss of tourism due to COVID-19 as well as rising fuel prices resulting from the invasion of Ukraine. With foreign currency reserves nearing zero in mid-April, the government announced it was suspending repayment of foreign debt totalling more than $50 billion. Since this default, Sri Lanka’s first ever, the economy has ground to a virtual halt. Lack of hard currency has led to severe shortages of petrol, cooking gas and other essential supplies; lines of cars, motorcycles and three-wheeled taxis waiting two or three days for fuel have become routine features of life across the island. Inflation is running at more than 50 per cent, with high food prices forcing 70 per cent of Sri Lankan households to reduce food intake and nearly half the country’s children requiring emergency assistance. Medicines and medical supplies are running out, and patients are now dying of easily treatable causes. With imported fertiliser in short supply, the next harvest of rice and other vegetables, as well as the major currency earner tea, is expected to be down by as much as half. The UN and Red Cross have both launched urgent appeals to fund food and other humanitarian assistance, with UNICEF warning of a “full-blown humanitarian emergency”.  

The economic and humanitarian situations are certain to get worse before they get better. The country is, in effect, bankrupt, and key economic activities needed to generate hard currency, such tourism, tea production and foreign remittances, are virtually absent or much reduced. Since inviting the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to assist, the government has held multiple rounds of negotiations for an Extended Funds Facility. The most recent talks in Colombo in late June saw the IMF announce “significant progress” but failed to reach a so-called staff-level agreement.

July’s political turmoil will likely add further delay. Even if the IMF persuades a new government to make the reforms needed to win the requested $3 billion bailout, it will disburse no funds until it deems Sri Lanka’s external debt to be “sustainable”. For that to happen, Sri Lanka must reach a deal to restructure the debt held by international creditors, who will have to accept a lesser payout on bonds, lower interest rates or extended terms of repayment. The earliest likely date for the IMF to release funds would be early 2023. In the meantime, Sri Lanka is urgently seeking “bridge financing” to allow it to pay for the fuel and other essential supplies needed to get the economy running again and avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. In June, Wickremesinghe floated the idea of a donor conference that would see India, China and Japan, as well as other countries, pledge support. It will take a massive infusion of humanitarian support to prevent the kind of mass desperation that would threaten much worse political instability and violence.

What steps are needed to establish a new government and restore the political order needed to address the economic crisis?

The forced departure and resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa could augur a political sea change for Sri Lanka, but with Rajapaksa loyalists still appearing to control parliament and with Rajapaksa ally Wickremesinghe having a good chance of being chosen to serve out Gotabaya’s term, it is unclear how deep the change will be. Disappointed hopes for change, amid extreme economic hardship, could yet produce further instability. The coming days and weeks will test the ability of Sri Lanka’s political class to act in the collective, rather than party or personal, interest, by adopting political reforms essential to meeting popular aspirations.

The swearing-in of Wickremesinghe on 15 July as acting president begins the constitutionally mandated process of selecting Gotabaya’s successor. Parliament has 30 days to choose, from its own ranks, someone to assume the presidency for the remainder of the current president’s term, which in this case runs until November 2024, unless there is an agreement to hold fresh elections sooner. That president will then need to appoint a prime minister and cabinet that has parliament’s confidence. The current parliament is widely detested, but there is no constitutional way around the fact that it is the current 225 parliamentarians who will determine the country’s next group of leaders.

Wickremesinghe is currently the front runner for the presidency. The SLPP has suffered defections since March, but appears to still have a parliamentary majority, and on 15 July the party’s secretary-general announced that it was backing Wickremesinghe. Scarred by arson attacks on government politicians’ houses on 9-10 May, feeling vulnerable without the Rajapaksas in power and knowing they are deeply unpopular, many SLPP members see Wickremesinghe, who has proven his loyalty to the family, as their best protection. Running against Wickremesinghe are SLPP defector and former Rajapaksa loyalist Dullas Alahapperuma, Sajith Premadasa, leader of the main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya, and Anura Kumara Dassanayake, leader of the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. With an absolute majority required to win, a first-round victor is unlikely, and, Alahapperuma is believed best placed to pick up additional support in the later rounds of voting that most expect to see. The fact that the vote will, unusually, be by secret ballot, adds an additional element of unpredictability.

As in May, when his appointment as prime minister was welcomed by some – including Western governments – as a possible source of stability, Wickremesinghe might appear to some to offer a similar chance for a new start if he were to become president. Yet his presidency would also bring major risks: the quintessential career politician, with cases of alleged corruption by close associates during his 2015-2019 premiership receiving wide publicity, and his close association with the Rajapaksa family now well established, Wickremesinghe is hardly an obvious vehicle for the kind of change protesters, and much of the population, demand. His assuming the presidency threatens to tarnish for many the sense of victory felt with Gotabaya’s resignation and could raise doubts about whether the needed change is possible within the current political system.

To reduce the risk of renewed instability, ... any new government must address the political factors behind the economic collapse.

To reduce the risk of renewed instability, a Wickremesinghe government – or indeed any new government – must address the political factors behind the economic collapse and respond to popular demands for meaningful reform. Three steps in particular would go a long way to proving the new government has listened to the people and is serious about change.

First, the new government should agree from the beginning that it is serving on an interim basis and commit itself to fresh elections before the end of 2022, as many in the opposition and in the protest movement have been calling for. Fresh, and relatively quick, polls appear essential to restoring the legitimacy of the presidency, parliament and political order as a whole. The risk is considerable that a new president and prime minister will not agree to new elections, instead trying to stay in power through the duration of current terms – though this may be tempered by the knowledge that any government that hopes to rule for very long will have to take responsibility for extremely difficult and likely unpopular economic reforms.

Secondly, to address popular demands for change, the next government should also commit to amending the constitution to abolish the executive presidency, which since 1978 has concentrated an extraordinary amount of power in the president, weakening all other institutions of government and doing enormous damage to Sri Lankan democracy and the country’s well-being. The 20th amendment, pushed through by Gotabaya and the SLPP in October 2020, further turbo-charged presidential powers. According to a Supreme Court judgment in June, any amendment that returns executive power to the prime minister and cabinet will need approval at a referendum. Such a referendum could be held on the same date as a general election, ideally by the end of 2022. In a statement on becoming interim president, Wickremesinghe promised to return to the 19th amendment, which had reduced but not eliminated the president’s executive powers before it was repealed by the 20th amendment’s passage.

Thirdly, the incoming government should prove it is serious about criminal investigations into alleged corruption by previous regimes. It should re-establish the kinds of specialised police investigative units that were active from 2015 to 2019, give full support to an independent anti-bribery commission, cooperate fully with parliamentary oversight committees, support legislation to establish an independent Public Prosecutor’s office in the Attorney General’s Department, and renew previous cooperation with the UN and World Bank’s Stolen Assets Recovery program investigating major cases of corruption.

The sooner a broadly acceptable government is established to replace the Rajapaksa administration, the greater chance there is that it can begin to take up the herculean task of finding solutions to the country’s urgent economic and humanitarian needs. This will require finalisation of an economic reform package that the IMF can accept, which in turn will strengthen negotiations with Sri Lanka’s multiple international creditors, whose agreement to accept losses on their investments is essential to Sri Lanka’s debt being declared “sustainable”. The more consensus can be reached in parliament on the necessary policy reforms, the more credible they will be internationally. The IMF, in turn, must be careful not to press for austerity measures that will too deeply undercut popular acceptance and fuel further political unrest. Prior to finalising an IMF bailout, the government will face the enormous challenge of working with donors to find billions in short-term financing to pay for the fuel needed to get the economy running again and will need to devise a plan for feeding its population as the agricultural economy collapses and harvests shrink. 

What can Sri Lanka’s international partners do to help manage the crisis?

Once a new president is selected by parliament and a new government is established, international donors should be generous with short-term humanitarian and food aid but more demanding with regard to the governance reforms that would need to accompany a long-term bailout. On humanitarian relief, donors interested in preventing Sri Lanka from collapsing further should make available funding well beyond the modest amounts in both the UN humanitarian and Red Cross emergency appeals.

At the same time, influential states should directly, and through the IMF, urge the new government to put in motion the process described above to amend the constitution to abolish the executive presidency and establish the independent oversight institutions that are needed to prevent large-scale corruption and gross economic mismanagement. Sri Lanka’s crisis is to a significant degree the result of a political system without meaningful checks on, or accountability for, economic decision-making. The window of opportunity to escape the executive presidency’s dead ends and re-establish a fully parliamentary system should not be lost. The country’s foreign partners should also encourage the IMF to insist on meaningful anti-corruption policies and strengthened rule-of-law institutions as part of its conditions for approving a bailout.

The emergence of a broad popular movement demanding deep political reforms, an end to corruption, and accountability for theft and other alleged crimes by the Rajapaksas and other politicians has created an opening for Western governments and the UN Human Rights Council to reframe their longstanding calls for “accountability” in ways that are more clearly in sync with public opinion, especially among the Sinhala majority. Framed in its broadest sense, the principle of accountability can connect widespread demands – from all of Sri Lanka’s communities – for accountability for economic mismanagement, theft and other abuses of power, with more difficult aspects of the Human Rights Council’s agenda, including accountability for alleged crimes committed during the country’s 26-year civil war, an idea that remains controversial among Sinhalese and politically challenging for Sri Lankan governments.

Whatever government is in place when the Council meets next in September, a new resolution will be needed that reaffirms the ambitious reform scheme laid out in 2021 and extends the mandate, with proper funding, of the important Sri Lanka Accountability Project managed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Should a future Sri Lankan government emerge that is committed to tackling impunity, pursuing the recovery of stolen assets and supporting a restructured state with more inclusive governance, the UN and foreign governments should offer targeted forms of support. These can include technical support for domestic anti-corruption initiatives and assistance to relaunch the assets recovery effort begun by the coalition government of 2015-2019, under the auspices of the program run by the World Bank and UN. Support of this nature stands the best chance of domestic acceptance and could help the country begin to work its way out of the persistent political and economic crisis from which it has struggled to emerge.

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