Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka: UNHRC action remains crucial
Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka: UNHRC action remains crucial
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
Briefing Note / Asia

Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka: UNHRC action remains crucial

This briefing note draws on Crisis Group’s extensive reporting on post-war political developments in Sri Lanka, as well as recent interviews with a range of Sri Lankan stakeholders.


The government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has failed to comply with two successive Human Rights Council (HRC) resolutions. Failure is most obvious with respect to accountability for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in the final phase of the civil war, but also by the lack of devolution of power, ongoing militarisation of the north and east, and deepening authoritarianism throughout the country. Decisive HRC action now is required in light of GoSL’s repeated failures to undertake the necessary steps alone; it is necessary also in order to decrease the risk of a return to deadly conflict in Sri Lanka.

The HRC should adopt a strong resolution on Sri Lanka, establishing an international commission of inquiry to investigate credible allegations of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Sri Lankan government forces, establish the facts and circumstances that may amount to such violations, and identify those responsible. The commission also should be empowered to investigate continuing rights violations stemming from those events, including alleged abuse of detainees, enforced disappearances and sexual violence.

The resolution should request the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and relevant special procedures mandate holders, many of whom have been denied access by GoSL, to provide the commission with the technical and logistical support needed and to monitor and report back to the HRC on any progress made by the GoSL in implementing the relevant resolutions.

Failure to comply with 2013 HRC resolution

The March 2013 HRC resolution called for action by the Sri Lankan state to abide by its own previous commitments and international obligations, including by implementing “the constructive recommendations” of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and “conduct[ing] an independent and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law”.

Rejecting the HRC resolution, the GoSL claims to be pursuing reconciliation and accountability through its National Plan of Action (NPoA). In fact, however, the GoSL has ignored the LLRC’s core recommendations, which focused on reestablishing the rule of law, restoring checks on executive and military power, launching independent investigations into human rights violations, restoring civil administration to the Tamil-speaking majority north, and pursuing a lasting political settlement.

No independent institutions or investigations

The government has failed – despite widespread public demands and the LLRC recommendations – to restore the independence of key oversight bodies, including police, human rights and public service commissions. Sri Lanka’s human rights commission has lost all semblance of independence, failing to carry out effective investigations into any serious human rights abuses.

The government effectively nullified what remained of the judiciary’s independence in January 2013 through the impeachment of chief justice Shiranee Bandaranayake. A series of arbitrary actions and political statements by the replacement chief justice, former presidential advisor Mohan Peiris, has further weakened the institution and confidence in it.

The government has made no meaningful progress in investigating or prosecuting any of the high-profile cases specifically cited by the LLRC. For example:

  • there have been no arrests for the 2006 massacre of 17 ACF aid workers;
  • there have been no indictments in the “Trinco 5” students’ murder: 12 police officers arrested at the magistrate’s court level in 2013 remain free on bail;
  • the government refuses to release the 2009 report of the Udalagama commission which looked into both the ACF and Trinco 5 cases, despite the LLRC’s recommendation that it do so;
  • there have been no successful investigations or prosecutions into any of the many murders and violent attacks on journalists under the current government.

Continual announcements of new commissions provide thin cover for the government’s failure to implement the key recommendations of a half-dozen previous commissions on enforced disappearances, as called for by the LLRC. Reports from eyewitnesses to the actual functioning of the newest commission on missing and disappeared persons appointed by President Rajapaksa in August 2013 indicate the military is actively involved in its work, including in the initial registration of complaints from families of the disappeared. Hearings have been marred by translations from Tamil deemed inadequate and biased; and the commission’s credibility and impartiality have been compromised by apparent conflicts of interests involving government lawyers working for it.

Despite NPoA claims of cooperation with the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), the GoSL has in fact denied WGEID’s repeated requests for country visits. Police have prevented families of the disappeared from travelling to Colombo to engage in public protest or petition the UN. Finally, the government has still not presented to parliament its witness and victims protection bill – repeatedly promised since 2006 – nor a law criminalising disappearances, as promised during High Commissioner Navi Pillay’s visit to Sri Lanka in August 2013, fundamentally compromising domestic inquiries.

No progress on accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity

Impunity is most evident with regard to the credible allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by both sides at the end of the war, detailed in the 31 March 2011 Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka. Although the GoSL-established LLRC is touted as having fulfilled this need, in fact the LLRC was never mandated to investigate such allegations. As a result, the LLRC only cited a handful of cases, suggesting that the government should investigate.

GoSL has conducted no independent investigations into the alleged crimes committed by its forces, including where photographic and video evidence of alleged extrajudicial killings and sexual violence exists. The report of the army court of inquiry appointed in 2012 – which the government claims exonerated the military of any responsibility for civilian deaths – has still not been released; its methodology remains unknown. Almost no information has been shared about the second military court of inquiry that reportedly is investigating the allegations of post-war extrajudicial killings. No suspects have been named; none have been detained.

The government points to its new census of war deaths and damage as an important step in its reconciliation program and as satisfying one of the major LLRC recommendations. The design and implementation of the census, however, suggest it is principally intended to help strengthen the government’s position at the HRC. The methodology of the survey, which allows reporting of deaths and injuries only from those within a narrowly defined “nuclear family”, will mean many deaths are not counted. The census will not record the deaths of families killed in their entirety, nor of families who have since left Sri Lanka – and it will not be accepted as a credible and independent accounting by those affected.

Violence against religious minorities

2013 and early 2014 have seen an alarming trend of new forms of communal violence. Radical Buddhist nationalist groups continue their regular violent attacks against Muslims and Christians and their places of worship. Despite the HRC’s concern in 2013 at “reports of … discrimination on the basis of religion or belief”, the police have failed to prevent or arrest any but a handful of those responsible for the more than one hundred such attacks in that time period. This feeds the widespread belief that the violence has the blessing of the government.

No political progress in militarised Northern Province

The GoSL points to the establishment of the northern provincial council (NPC) as demonstrating its commitment to the devolution of power called for by the LLRC and HRC. Since the September 2013 election, however, the government has refused to allow the NPC to establish an effective administration. The Northern Province’s governor, an ex-general appointed by and working for the president, has blocked NPC attempts to appoint key officials and constitute needed administrative departments within its constitutional powers.

The HRC further called for the government to “reach a political settlement on the devolution of power to the provinces”. The government insists this should be done through a parliamentary select committee (PSC) it controls; the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and all other opposition parties reject this position.

There has been no significant or verifiable reduction in the numbers of troops stationed in the north and east or in the military’s regular interference in civilian affairs in both provinces. Despite government claims that “civilian administration is now fully restored in the former theatres of conflict”, the military – both directly and through the Presidential Task Force (PTF) – actively monitors the civilian population and controls development there.

While the military has returned some land to civilian owners in Jaffna and other parts of the north, larger amounts are still occupied by the military and other government bodies. There is still no transparent or equitable process to challenge government seizures of land or to mediate competing land claims, as recommended by the LLRC and called for by the HRC.

The need for a robust international investigation and accounting

The government’s refusal to conduct a credible, independent inquiry into alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, especially in the context of its deliberate dismantling of domestic rule of law institutions underpins arguments for the HRC to establish an international commission of inquiry.

Such a commission would:

  • challenge Sri Lanka’s institutionalised impunity, a necessary step for long-term democratic stability;
  • establish a more complete record of the scale of civilian suffering at the end of the war, grounded in an inter-governmental mandate less easily dismissed by GoSL and its supporters;
  • establish the facts and circumstances of the LTTE’s abuses and crimes in a form that is harder for Tamils and Tamil organisations to deny, thus discouraging continued romanticisation of the LTTE;
  • reassure survivors of war-time abuses, most affected by the systemic failings of the UN in 2008 and 2009, that they have not been abandoned by the international community, thus undercutting more radical demands by some Tamil diaspora organisations.

The commission of inquiry’s mandate should include the following:

  • to investigate all alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law committed from September 2008 through May 2009 by Sri Lankan government forces and fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE);
  • to establish the facts and circumstances that may amount to such violations;
  • to identify those responsible with a view to ensuring accountability;
  • to investigate continuing consequences of the events of 2008-2009, such as alleged abuse of detainees, enforced disappearances, sexual violence and the continued heavy militarisation of the northern and eastern provinces, much of which appears designed to destroy evidence and intimidate potential witnesses; and
  • to present its report to the 28th session of the HRC, at which time the report should be transmitted to the UN General Assembly and Secretary-General.

The commission also will need support and assistance, whether through OHCHR or otherwise:

  • to provide witness protection, including such travel and other assistance needed to facilitate appearance and to ensure safety before, during and after any cooperation with the commission;
  • to preserve evidence of alleged crimes with a view to making such evidence available to any prosecuting authority with jurisdiction and with sufficient witness protection and other safeguards in place to ensure a credible process.

The High Commissioner also should be mandated to report back to the HRC on any progress made by the GoSL in implementing outstanding resolutions.

A truth and reconciliation commission? Not yet

Following South African President Zuma’s November 2013 meeting with President Rajapaksa, senior Sri Lankan officials have suggested they are considering the possibility of establishing a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC). This is not an appropriate mechanism to address Sri Lanka’s challenges in the current context described above.

Critically, the achievements of the South African TRC depended on its being part of a larger democratic transition, managed by the post-Apartheid government, with wide-ranging legal and institutional changes that increased political space, guaranteed new rights, and placed checks on the security forces and executive power. In contrast, post-war Sri Lanka is moving in a dangerous, anti-democratic direction, with reduced space for free expression and criticism of state policies, continued rights abuses, and weakened democratic and independent institutions. A well-designed TRC could eventually be a useful complement to – but not replacement for – investigations and prosecutions. Truth and accountability, as in South Africa’s TRC, must go together.


An international commission of inquiry will not solve all of Sri Lanka’s problems. However, progress on accountability and the other key concerns cited in the 2013 HRC resolution remain critical if Sri Lanka is to repair its democratic institutions, protect the rights of Sri Lankans belonging to all communities, devolve power to the north and east and build a new sustainable multi-ethnic and multi-religious future.

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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