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Sri Lanka: Prevention Should Be at Heart of New Human Rights Council Resolution
Sri Lanka: Prevention Should Be at Heart of New Human Rights Council Resolution
Sri Lanka’s newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena (C) arrives for his swearing-in ceremony in Colombo, 9 January 2015. REUTERS
Commentary / Asia

A new Sri Lanka?

Crisis Group Sri Lanka Senior Analyst Alan Keenan discusses how much President Sirisena, previously a minor figure in Rajapaksa’s government, has changed politics on the South Asian island.

Sri Lanka appeared to turn a new leaf with the election in January 2015 of President Maithripala Sirisena. This put an end to rule of this country of 21 million people by Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is closely associated with a brutal 2009 victory over the Tamil Tiger insurgency and authoritarian government.

You recently returned from Sri Lanka. It’s now been four months since Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena came to office. Did the political atmosphere in the country feel different from before?

Alan Keenan: Absolutely. The most striking change is that people are no longer afraid to talk. Under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, people were very careful in what they said publicly or even privately: they constantly felt that they were being monitored and feared the consequences. That has changed dramatically with the election of Sirisena. In public places, in cafés, in restaurants, people talk openly about corruption and war crimes, about the need to hold politicians, security forces and armed groups accountable for abuses of power. Academics and activists are publishing and speaking publicly again. In my view, this is Sirisena’s greatest achievement so far. The word that many people used when talking to me was that they felt “relief”.

Sirisena came to power in January with an ambitious 100-day agenda. We are now almost a month past those 100 days. How much progress has he made on his agenda?

Achieving Sirisena’s agenda – particularly the constitutional changes – was always going to be a challenge, given that his government doesn’t have a majority in parliament. Despite being the general secretary of Rajapaksa’s own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa thanks to the support of the SLFP’s great rival, the United National Party (UNP) and a coalition of smaller parties. Even after bringing two-dozen SLFP members into his government in March, Sirisena’s government, headed by prime minister and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, had far less than the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution. On almost every issue, Sirisena has struggled to gain the cooperation of the SLFP, with many opposed to his collaboration with the UNP, and a significant wing of the party wanting to see Rajapaksa return as prime minister of an SLFP government.

Sirisena is in a tricky position. He doesn’t want to be known as the person who took over the SLFP and investigated them all for corruption, only to have them be soundly defeated in the next election.

Sirisena is thus in a tricky position. He remains the head of the SLFP and he doesn’t want to damage his own party in advance of the upcoming parliamentary elections. At the very least, he doesn’t want to be known as the person who took over the SLFP, investigated them all for corruption, only to have them be soundly defeated in the next election. So he’s trying, in many ways, to find the middle path between pushing too hard and not pushing hard enough, whether it is with respect to corruption, to ethnic issues, to war crimes allegations, or to relations with China, Western powers and India.

Nonetheless, after months of uncertainty and complicated negotiations with the SLFP, the late April passage of the nineteenth amendment to the constitution – just a few days past the 100 days goal – allowed Sirisena to deliver on the most important promise on his agenda: to cut down the excessive powers of the Executive Presidency, which his predecessor Rajapaksa had expanded significantly. While the amendment that passed didn’t reduce powers as much as many of Sirisena’s supporters wanted – thanks largely to changes the SLFP insisted on – it was still a significant step. It re-imposes a two-term limit to the presidency and removes the president’s powers to dissolve parliament whenever he wants. It also removes some of his immunity, makes him answerable to parliament and, perhaps most important, significantly increases the power of the prime minister and the cabinet of ministers.

Another important promise – and one of Sirisena’s government’s first moves in office – was to pass a consumer and employee-friendly budget, lowering prices on food and increasing salaries for public servants. This was in response to the widespread sense that the cost of living was becoming unbearable, with even middle-class families under severe economic pressure.

Sirisena also promised to reform the electoral system within his first 100 days. How is he doing with that?

Sirisena’s plan – which he is struggling to implement, even if it has widespread acceptance as a general idea – is to eliminate the preferential voting system, seen as a major cause of election violence, and return to a largely first-past-the-post system, while preserving some degree of proportional representation. But the smaller parties and those representing geographically dispersed minorities, such as Sri Lanka’s Muslims, fear that the new model does not give enough emphasis to proportionality and will reduce their number of seats. Others, like the Tamil National Alliance, which represents the country’s Tamils in the north and east, are worried the delimitation of new constituencies will shrink the number of constituencies with Tamil majorities, given how many Tamils have left Sri Lanka the past thirty years. Sirisena hopes that all the major parties will be able to reach a consensus within a month, but given these complexities, that’s a very optimistic timeline.

As on many issues, the Sirisena government and the diverse coalition of parties that brought him to power are split on the timing and sequence of electoral reforms, which will require another constitutional amendment. Many of his supporters, along with the SLFP, want the new electoral system approved and want the upcoming parliamentary elections – promised to be called after the conclusion of Sirisena’s first 100 days – to be held under the new system. With the process of drawing new electoral district boundaries expected take at least two or three months after passage of whatever new system is agreed, this would involve a considerable delay. The SLFP would be happy with this, as they see their election chances increasing with time.

On the other hand, the UNP and some of the smaller parties backing Sirisena want an election as soon as possible. At this stage, they’d prefer to address electoral reforms in a new parliament, but if reforms are to be agreed now, they want the elections to come immediately after, and to be held under the old voting system. The UNP’s hope is to come back in a new parliament with a majority and a strengthened political position. This is important if they are to face a number of difficult issues that the UNP and Sirisena have promised to tackle, including a domestic mechanism for investigating and prosecuting any crimes committed during the civil war, and making progress on reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese and the smaller Tamil population. But tackling these topics will generate a lot of resistance from nationalists and the supporters of former President Rajapaksa, who still enjoys considerable backing among Sinhalese voters and sections of the security forces.

In light of this, one of the Sirisena government’s first moves on coming to power was to request a six-month deferral of an upcoming UN report on atrocities committed during and after the war – from 2002 to 2011 – which was due to be released for the March session of the UN Human Rights Council. With the extra time, the government hoped it could have the elections behind them and be in a stronger position when it received the bad news expected in the report. The U.S., UK and EU supported the request for a deferral on this same basis, assuming that by September, the government would have had time to take measures and develop a plan that could win the approval of the Human Rights Council.

So, one of Sirisena’s key decisions over the next month is whether to call elections in time to get past them before the UN report is released in August and before the Human Rights Council session begins in September. Sirisena has promised to have unveiled by then a domestic “accountability mechanism”, to investigate and hold accountable anyone found guilty of war crimes and other serious human rights violations committed during the armed conflict with the Tamil Tigers. While the new government has refused to cooperate with the ongoing UN inquiry, it has expressed a willingness to accept “technical assistance” from the UN when conducting its own domestic process. It remains to be seen how large a role the UN or other international expertise will be invited to play.

How are these frictions between Sirisena’s government and the country’s former leaders affecting reconciliation with the country’s 12 per cent Sri Lankan Tamil population?

During his first months in office, Sirisena has made a number of small but positive moves to address longstanding grievances of Tamils in the north and east where they are the majority. His government has returned some military-occupied land to its long-displaced owners. And although the military has not withdrawn any troops, it is keeping a lower profile than before and interfering less in civilian affairs. Sirisena also appointed two new governors in the north and east, both of whom are well-respected former civil servants, to replace the retired generals that Rajapaksa had appointed. And he has released some detainees held under the prevention of terrorism act.

Nonetheless, Sinhala nationalism remains strong. According to its vision, Sinhalese and Buddhists have been historically – and remain today – under threat from various outsiders, whether those are Muslims, Tamils, Westerners or Christians. Under Rajapaksa, this vision was encouraged as de facto state policy, and it remains a very powerful element in Sri Lankan politics, courted by Rajapaksa and his supporters. Now, given the tensions within the SLFP and the popularity that Mahinda Rajapaksa still enjoys, it’s clear that Sirisena is being forced to pick his battles. The recent decision to ban Tamil commemorations of their war-dead in the north, and the appointment of General Jagath Dias, one of top commanders in the final months of fighting in 2009 and almost certainly to be cited as a key perpetrator in the forthcoming Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report, as army chief of staff, were popular with Sinhalese nationalists but outraged the Tamils, for example. I don’t think we can expect any big moves on reconciliation, meaning either more releases of land to Tamils or a real scaling back of the military, until after the parliamentary elections.

Sirisena has made clear he won’t tolerate the violent campaigning against Muslims and evangelical Christians that flourished under Rajapaksa.

On a more clearly positive note, Sirisena has made clear he won’t tolerate the violent campaigning against Muslims and evangelical Christians that flourished under Rajapaksa. Muslims faced particularly intense pressure in 2013 and 2014 from militant Buddhist organisations that clearly had the backing of the former regime. The organisations burned out their businesses, attacked people on the street, and pressed for legislative changes to weaken the Muslim community. All this was done in the name of opposing “Islamic extremism”, which does not really exist in Sri Lanka. All of that has come to an end under Sirisena, though some of the issues raised by militant Buddhists remain potential flashpoints that will require careful management by the government and community leaders.

How do you see the government’s relations with other countries in the region and internationally?

The new government, with its major shift in priorities, has been welcomed by most world powers, with the exception of the Chinese. Indian Prime Minister Modi visited soon after the election, the first visit of an Indian prime minister in 28 years. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was just in Colombo in early May. Senior EU and UN officials arrived before that. All have issued very positive statements. The reason Beijing is less thrilled is that the Sirisena-UNP government has deliberately distanced itself from the very close ties that Rajapaksa had cultivated with China. Rajapaksa had relied on China for political support on the Security Council and Human Rights Council against investigations into alleged war crimes. But he also depended economically on China, which has pumped billions of dollars in loans, investments and development assistance into Sri Lanka over the past decade. The new government has made clear it doesn’t want to cut its ties with China but is instead trying to recalibrate them, not least because of worries that the country’s growing dependence would bring strings that could be dangerous for Sri Lankan sovereignty. In the coming years, Sri Lankans will certainly still need Chinese money and support, but will want to have it along with support from India and the West. This will be a challenging balancing act, but shouldn’t be impossible to pull off.

Who is winning the political tug-of-war between President Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa?

Sirisena wasn’t a non-entity under Rajapaksa, he was the general secretary of the SLFP, but he didn’t have a high public profile. His personality and demeanour are very quiet, unassuming, modest, and he remained a bit of an unknown even in the initial months of his presidency. Over time, though, we’ve seen Sirisena emerge with a particular leadership style which is much more consultative, modest, not about increasing his power but about getting as many people to sign on as possible. This is quite unusual in Sri Lankan politics. Many find the change refreshing and encouraging; others criticise Sirisena as weak and say his “national government” experiment is beginning to unravel.

Gradually, though, Sirisena appears to have put Rajapaksa in an increasingly tight spot: through the eventual passage of the nineteenth amendment; his moves to weaken pro-Rajapaksa forces in all kinds of intra-SLFP and intra-Sinhalese political battles; and continued legal pressure on the former ruling family and its close associates. These include investigations and arrests of former Rajapaksa government officials like the former president’s brother, the ex-minister for economic development, Basil Rajapaksa. Mahinda and another very powerful brother, the former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, have both been summoned for questioning by the bribery commission. These moves triggered street demonstrations and an uproar in parliament from the pro-Rajapaksa wing of the SLFP that succeeded in delaying debate on the nineteenth amendment. But it failed to stop the passage of the amendment by an enormous majority, once the pro-Rajapaksa camp realised it didn’t have the votes to defeat it.

Most positively, the tradition of robust debate and challenging authority in Sri Lanka has returned. One of the most striking things about the election campaign was that suddenly all these voices were speaking out against Rajapaksa because they had a vehicle, finally, to challenge him. People were willing to take the risk of writing letters critical of him, of working for his defeat. Because they thought there was a chance of change. Crucially I think many people thought it was their last chance, since most people believe many of those who opposed him would have been arrested or faced worse outcomes had Rajapaksa won. President Sirisena himself speaks of how he was risking his life running against Rajapaksa, saying it was like jumping into the sea with my family, “would we sink or swim, would we find land again”? Now, the changed environment is tangible.

Still, the aggrieved and potentially violent streak in Sinhalese nationalist politics is being actively courted by former President Rajapaksa and his supporters. Among the big questions about the upcoming parliamentary elections are: who will champion this constituency? Will Mahinda Rajapaksa himself join the campaign? Or will it be his proxies? How strongly will they push the classic fears of Sinhalese nationalism: Tamil separatism, Muslim extremism, Christian evangelicals, a Western-led global conspiracy? All these remain very potent ideologically within Sri Lanka, and the country still has some way to go to consolidate its democratic transition.

A sign in front of the Palali Security Forces Headquarters, Jaffna Peninsula. April 2019. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy
Commentary / Asia

Sri Lanka: Prevention Should Be at Heart of New Human Rights Council Resolution

The UN Human Rights Council will soon discuss Sri Lanka, where the new government has scotched truth and justice efforts related to the 1983-2009 civil war. The Council should demand accountability for past crimes but stress that Colombo’s present policies may spark further deadly conflict.  

As the UN Human Rights Council begins its first meeting of 2021 in Geneva, high on its crowded agenda will be to decide whether to adopt a new resolution that maintains international oversight over Sri Lanka. The present one, adopted in 2015 but now expiring, won support from the Sri Lankan government of the time, which agreed to address the legacy of the country’s brutal civil war and its conclusion in a wave of atrocities in 2009. But Sri Lanka’s current government, led by the same nationalist politicians and generals who were in office at the war’s end, has rejected the truth and accountability agenda it inherited and is working hard to end the Council’s engagement. With options for truth and justice for wartime atrocities closed for now within Sri Lanka, the Council should adopt a new resolution that underscores the international interest in accountability. At the same time, the accountability agenda, which has dominated international discussions about post-war Sri Lanka over the last decade, must not divert attention from the current government’s authoritarian and ethnically exclusionary policies, which may well be sowing the seeds of future violence. The new resolution should thus also focus on preventing a return to violence and be followed by a sustained international effort to persuade the Sri Lankan government to pull back from its dangerous trajectory.

The Long Quest for Accountability

Beginning in 2012, the combination of the Sri Lankan government’s refusal to investigate well-founded allegations its troops committed numerous atrocities in the final months of its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009 and the growing authoritarianism of then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration led to a series of increasingly critical Human Rights Council resolutions. Commissioned by the Council in 2014, an investigation by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights found “reasonable grounds to believe” that both the Tigers and government security forces committed “gross violations of international human rights law, serious violations of international humanitarian law and international crimes”, possibly amounting to crimes against humanity. To this day, these allegations have never been independently investigated, much less prosecuted by national authorities.

The Sri Lankan state’s blanket deflection of accountability briefly lifted in 2015 with the election of a new government, which promised to investigate and prosecute war-related crimes as part of a package of wide-ranging legal reforms and transitional justice measures that were rooted in UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1, which was adopted in October 2015. The government’s co-sponsorship of that resolution appeared to herald a break with the decades of impunity for political crimes and human rights violations committed by state and pro-state forces. The shift triggered important initiatives in Sri Lanka, including the establishment of offices on missing persons and on reparations for war-related harms. Partly freed from previous political constraints, the police mounted serious investigations, leading to the filing of charges and a number of trials in a series of high-profile cases of corruption, abduction and political murder committed during Rajapaksa’s ten years in office. By the end of 2017, however, the government was too divided and rudderless to make a strong or persuasive push on the transitional justice initiatives it had promised in Geneva or to see prosecutions of Rajapaksa-era crimes through to the end.

The door to domestic accountability and reform has since slammed shut, at least for the time being, with the powerful Rajapaksa dynasty’s return to office – first with the November 2019 election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president, and then with the August 2020 parliamentary victory of a coalition led by his brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is now the country’s prime minister. Running on a strongly Sinhala Buddhist nationalist platform, the Rajapaksas and their party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, promised to defend those military officers they considered war heroes against international accountability efforts and to end the “Geneva process” once and for all.

The UN Human Rights Council sessions running from late February to late March will decide whether the Rajapaksas have their way. At the centre of member states’ deliberations will be a powerful new report from the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which calls for “international action to ensure justice for international crimes” allegedly committed during the 26-year civil war. Noting that Sri Lanka has “largely closed the possibility of genuine progress being made to end impunity through a domestic transitional justice process”, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet asks the Council to establish a dedicated mechanism to collect and preserve evidence “for future accountability processes”. She also urges member states to “investigate and prosecute international crimes committed by all parties … including under accepted principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction”; calls on governments to explore targeted sanctions against those credibly alleged to have committed grave human rights violations; and encourages the UN Security Council to consider a referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Although Chinese and Russian opposition would make any such referral a non-starter in New York, many victims’ groups and Tamil activists have welcomed the High Commissioner’s call as both an acknowledgement of the gravity of the crimes committed during the war and a reminder of the lack of domestic redress.

Sri Lanka is an example of how impunity can breed further atrocity.

Sri Lanka is an example of how impunity can breed further atrocity. The humanitarian catastrophe of 2009, during the final months of the civil war, was only the most recent of a long series spanning decades. The absence of justice for tens of thousands killed or “disappeared” in the left-wing Sinhala youth insurgencies and government counter-insurgencies of 1971 and the late 1980s directly fed the impunity with which police and military dealt with the Tamil militancy that began in the late 1970s and ended in 2009 with the Tigers’ destruction. It is hard to imagine breaking the cycle unless the state acknowledges its past crimes, something the present government is clearly unwilling to do. The Human Rights Council cannot change the government’s mind, but it could at least keep the pressure on Colombo by endorsing the High Commissioner’s call for international actors to take additional steps in the service of accountability.  

That said, it is unclear how far the Council will be willing to go. An initial draft resolution from the “core group” of states – Britain, Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro and North Macedonia – has disappointed many activists and survivors’ groups by pulling back from the High Commissioner’s bold calls for ICC referral, targeted sanctions and the creation of an independent evidence-gathering mechanism. With strong opposition expected from China, Russia and other supporters of Sri Lanka, the core group has chosen a relatively cautious approach, fearing the potentially lasting effects of a defeat. Even in this form, observers expect a close and hotly contested vote. Particularly important will be the degree to which Organisation of Islamic Cooperation member states act on concerns about growing discrimination against Muslims, and the level of engagement of the U.S., now back at the Council as an observer.

An old picture of the Rajapaksas found in the guard's room of the Army memorial in Kilinochchi, former LTTE capital. April 2019. CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The Return of the Rajapaksas

But important though it is to continue pursuing accountability for past crimes, the bitter truth for survivors is that even under the most hopeful scenarios, efforts to address past abuses are unlikely to bear fruit for years, perhaps decades. Moreover, those efforts, now necessarily taking place from outside Sri Lanka, will do little to reverse the growing risks arising from the country’s rapid slide back toward authoritarian and Sinhala majoritarian rule.

The 2019 and 2020 elections marked more than the return to power of the Rajapaksa dynasty and its Sinhala nationalist policies. The votes confirmed that Sri Lanka is now firmly in the hands of its most nationalist and militarist elements. Their commitment to authoritarian, militarised governance and to the political and cultural supremacy of the Sinhala and Buddhist majority pose a growing threat to Sri Lanka’s battered democratic institutions and to its political stability.

Signs of this trend abound. The 20th Amendment to the constitution, rushed through parliament in October 2020, removed any meaningful limits on presidential power, providing the head of the executive branch with direct and near complete control of the judiciary, police and previously independent oversight bodies. Even before the amendment’s adoption, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first year in office saw the rapid repoliticisation of the judiciary and police. Courts have been pressured to end many of the criminal cases against members and close associates of the president’s family – some of them are now back in senior government positions – and police investigations have been closed or redirected to protect the Rajapaksas and achieve Gotabaya’s political aims. A presidential commission of inquiry charged with investigating alleged cases of “political victimisation” of Rajapaksa associates by the previous government has recommended prosecuting the police officers who investigated political crimes of the 2005-2015 era, while at the same time characterising as innocent victims a range of suspects charged in murder, abduction and fraud cases. The president has also given unprecedented policymaking powers to serving and retired military officers, many of whom UN or other non-governmental investigations have implicated in human rights and humanitarian law violations.

The militarisation of government administration has led to an increase of state surveillance and harassment of civil society activists.

The militarisation of government administration has led to an increase of state surveillance and harassment of civil society activists, particularly in Tamil-majority districts. With no independent sources of protection and impunity reaffirmed for the past murders and assaults of senior journalists, self-censorship and fear run high among media personnel and civil society activists across the island. On 9 January, President Rajapaksa publicly threatened to treat an opposition parliamentarian like he did the Tamil Tigers leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, whom he boasted to have “killed like a dog”.

The government’s Sinhala nationalist rhetoric and discriminatory policies are also leading to a dangerous rise in religious and ethnic tensions. Sensationalist media coverage of police investigations and a separate commission of inquiry into the 2019 Islamic State (ISIS)-inspired Easter bombing has already created a climate of fear and suspicion toward Muslims among the Sinhala majority. The wholesale replacement of the original police investigation team; the apparently arbitrary arrest and detention under the anti-terrorism laws of a prominent Muslim activist lawyer for alleged involvement in the Easter attacks; and the resurrection of allegations against political rivals that police investigators had previously disproved – all represent breakdowns in the rule of law.

The government’s COVID-19 policies have made matters still worse. Despite the recommendations of its own committee of medical experts and the World Health Organization, the government insists on cremating the bodies of all known or suspected victims of the coronavirus. The policy runs directly counter to Islamic religious tenets and has generated widespread fear, anger and humiliation among Muslims. Despite public protests joined by Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, as well as criticism from UN bodies, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and foreign capitals, the government has refused to change course.

Muslim leaders and activists have long feared that the Rajapaksa government, in both its previous and present forms, would seek to provoke a violent reaction to the harassment and humiliation that members of the Muslim minority have experienced over the past decade, first from militant Buddhists and more recently from the state itself. Notwithstanding the 2019 Easter bombings, which were perpetrated by a small fringe of ISIS supporters, Sri Lankan Muslims have been remarkably restrained in the face of nearly a decade of hate speech and vigilante violence. But community leaders express concern about rising anger at the forced cremation policy. Even the smallest local act of violence could provoke a major backlash and give the government a pretext for drawing public attention away from economic woes arising from the country’s debt crisis, now aggravated by losses from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, long-running tensions between the Sinhala-dominated state and security forces and the Tamil ethnic minority continue to simmer. Although a return to violent militancy or terrorism appears unlikely, particularly in view of the state’s massive military presence in Tamil-majority districts of the north and east, animosity runs deep. Suffering from decades of political marginalisation and inequitable economic development, Tamils in the north east fear a slow but steady erosion of their cultural and demographic status in the region. With the military playing a direct role in district administration, and nationalist Buddhist practices given official state sanction, Tamils, like Muslims, are increasingly worried about further land seizures for military bases or Buddhist shrines and temples. Surveillance is tight and intimidation of political activists by police and military has increased. Small acts of resistance could easily turn violent and offer an excuse for the military to crack down and further entrench its power.

The Need for a Prevention Agenda

Sri Lanka has a long history of insurgencies and terrorist attacks in reaction to the political marginalisation of minorities and the state’s violations of their rights. Against this backdrop, the Human Rights Council should in the present session go beyond the focus on accountability in past resolutions to sound the alarm about the rising risks of future abuses and their potential link to violent conflict, and to put Sri Lankan leaders on notice that the world is watching.

The Human Rights Council should [...] sound the alarm about the rising risks of future abuses and their potential link to violent conflict.

The recent High Commissioner’s report, which confirms warnings made by Crisis Group since late 2019, provides the basis for such a resolution by identifying “clear early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation and a significantly heightened risk of future violations”. The central task facing the Human Rights Council should be to name, and help contain, Sri Lanka’s growing risks of repression and violent conflict. As one Sri Lankan lawyer argued to Crisis Group: “There’s a genuine risk of major repression. … But international scrutiny could still hold it back”.

The initial draft resolution from the core group empowers the High Commissioner’s office to continue its close monitoring and regular reporting to the Council and notes the most important of the warning signs her report highlights. The resolution could strengthen High Commissioner Bachelet’s hand by explicitly encouraging and giving her office the resources to apply the prevention tools the Council endorsed last year in Resolution 45/31 on “preventing human rights violations”. This resolution asked the High Commissioner’s office to strengthen its monitoring of early warning signs and called on it to bring to the Council’s attention any situation where “patterns of human rights violations …  point to a heightened risk of a human rights emergency”. Should the situation in Sri Lanka deteriorate rapidly, the resolution could provide the basis for intersessional briefings from the High Commissioner or emergency engagement by the Council and the High Commissioner’s office.

While an unenforceable Human Rights Council resolution is unlikely by itself to turn Sri Lanka’s trajectory around, it remains an important and immediate step. It would send a clear multilateral message to the Rajapaksas, focus international actors on their harsh and dangerous policies, and galvanise efforts to keep them from either further enflaming ethnic and religious tensions or closing what remains of democratic space. Specific objectives that those with influence in Colombo might pursue within this framework include:

  • ceasing arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and releasing on bail or bringing to trial those detained under this legislation, including Tamils held on war-related allegations and Muslims detained for alleged involvement in the 2019 Easter suicide bombings;
     
  • ensuring a transparent and procedurally fair process for prosecuting those against whom there is credible evidence of involvement in the Easter bombings;
     
  • ceasing all politically motivated punishment of police and politicians who backed investigations into high-profile criminal cases related to the previous Rajapaksa government, including by discontinuing the Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry;        
     
  • ending the policy of forced cremations and all government policies that discriminate against Muslims and evangelical Christians;
     
  • ceasing arbitrary and illegal seizures of land lived on, cultivated or used as religious sites by Tamils, Hindus and Muslims in the north and east (whether by the military or on alleged archaeological or environmental grounds) and establishing lawful and transparent processes, with multi-ethnic participation, for distributing state land and adjudicating land issues in these multi-ethnic regions;
     
  • ending the politically motivated surveillance and harassment of NGOs and community organisations by police and intelligence personnel; and
     
  • preserving the modest devolution of power provided for by the constitution’s 13th Amendment by holding overdue elections for provincial councils in 2021 and allowing them to operate effectively.

Outside actors wishing to press Colombo on these points have sources of leverage. Options that could be explored include the European Union formally reviewing Sri Lanka’s human rights-linked GSP+ trade privileges; international financial institutions and bilateral development agencies tightening the application of their conflict sensitivity and anti-corruption policies; the UN suspending new deployments of Sri Lankan troops as peacekeepers; and member states taking steps to pursue targeted sanctions and apply universal jurisdiction as recommended by the High Commissioner.

But while these should all be considered, right now the big push is in Geneva. If the Human Rights Council enacts a meaningful resolution that keeps accountability on the international agenda and encourages prevention, it may help generate much-needed momentum that states and other institutions can carry forward. This is where a renewed effort to prevent Sri Lanka’s further slide toward repression and increased risks of conflict urgently needs to begin.