icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Sri Lankan opposition party workers erect a cutout of their presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena in the north central town of Polonnaruwa on 30 November 2014. AFP/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi
Report 272 / Asia

Sri Lanka Between Elections

Sri Lanka’s 17 August parliamentary elections will test the country’s fragile democratic opening. With the hardline Sinhala nationalism of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa challenging the “good governance” agenda of the United National Party and President Sirisena, the outcome will affect chances for reconciliation and lasting resolution of the country’s long-running conflicts.

Executive Summary

A half year after Maithripala Sirisena’s stunning defeat of President Mahinda Raja­paksa raised hopes for democratic renaissance, the complexities of partisan politics, and Rajapaksa himself, have returned to centre stage. Sirisena’s initial months with a minority government led by the United National Party (UNP) have opened important political space: robust debate and criticism have replaced the fear under Rajapaksa, and important governance reforms have been made, but much remains undone. By initial steps on reconciliation, the government set a more accommodating tone on the legacy of the civil war and the ethnic conflict that drove it. But divisions within government and Sirisena’s failure to take control of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) prevented deeper reform and allowed Rajapaksa and his supporters to mount a comeback. With Sirisena opposing Rajapaksa’s return, the 17 August parliamentary elections will test the continued appeal of the ex-president’s hardline Sinhala nationalism and give a chance for the fresh start that lasting solutions to the country’s social divisions require.

Before running out of steam in June, Sirisena’s first six months saw notable achievements. Most important was parliament’s April passage of the nineteenth amendment to the constitution. Largely fulfilling the central pledge of the joint opposition campaign, it considerably reduced presidential powers and established independent oversight commissions. Though the original draft was watered down, the amendment is a welcome move away from authoritarianism and could assist in re-establishing the badly-damaged rule of law. As promised in their election manifesto, Sirisena and his UNP partners also launched scores of investigations into alleged major fraud and abuse of power by officials of the former government. While the unprecedented scale of the anti-corruption drive raised public expectations, the lack of indictments thus far has fed rumours of backroom deals and growing doubts that the institutional and political obstacles to effective prosecutions can ever be overcome.

The bright hopes of the government’s initial months were increasingly tarnished by unclear, ad hoc policies, frequently contradictory policy statements and missed deadlines for pledged reforms. As parliamentary elections, originally promised for June, were postponed, the coalition that elected Sirisena began to fragment. While the UNP and smaller parties urged him to dissolve parliament and hold elections after passage of the nineteenth amendment, he spent months trying and failing to win over the SLFP, whose nominal leadership he assumed after winning the presidency, following a decade of Rajapaksa at its helm.

The SLFP, which has a large majority in parliament, resented Sirisena’s unprecedented experiment with a “national government” dominated by its arch-rival UNP. Many SLFP parliamentarians remain loyal to Rajapaksa; others see the ex-president as the party’s best chance to retain its majority in the next parliament, given his popularity among Sinhala voters. After months of resisting Rajapaksa’s selection as the prime ministerial candidate of the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), lack of support in the party forced Sirisena to yield in early July.

Sirisena has since made it clear he opposes Rajapaksa’s candidacy and will not appoint him prime minister, even if the UPFA wins an unlikely majority. The ex-president’s opponents within the SLFP, along with smaller parties, have joined a new version of the UNP-led coalition that brought Sirisena victory in January, now re-energised by the threat of a Rajapaksa comeback. With the UPFA arguing the UNP threatens national security and supports Tamil separatism, the election will test the strength of Rajapaksa’s brand of Sinhala nationalism, as well as the depth of public concern over corruption and abuses of power. Even if he cannot become prime minister, Rajapaksa’s leadership of a large Sinhala nationalist bloc in parliament could make it harder for a UNP-led government’s to act as promised on reconciliation and accountability.

The Sirisena-UNP government set a new, less Sinhala triumphalist tone on ethnic issues and took some steps for reconciliation: releasing a number of Tamil political prisoners and limited amounts of military-occupied land in Tamil areas, while reducing the presence, though not size, of the military and its involvement in governing the north and east. Despite growing frustration among many Tamils, larger moves have been put off until after elections, as has action on alleged war crimes by both the military and the defeated Tamil Tigers. The government promises a credible domestic inquiry that meets international standards, but doubts about its willingness and ability to tackle institutionalised impunity and prosecute war crimes are widespread and well founded. Successful prosecutions require significant legal and institutional reforms and management of resistance from military leaders and nationalist parties.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) is due to deliver its long-awaited war crimes report to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) before it meets in September. At that session, the newly-elected government should commit to the legal reforms needed to effectively prosecute serious human rights violations suffered by all ethnic communities, including war crimes; to pursue prosecutions with adequate witness protection and international involvement; and to consult widely with victims, survivors and community groups on its longer-term program of transitional justice, including a possible truth commission. To be effective, these processes will require consistent international scrutiny and participation, including OHCHR assistance to investigations and continued monitoring and reporting to the HRC.

The parliamentary elections offer voters the chance to renew the mandate for change they gave Sirisena and the UNP in January. A strong showing by the Raja­paksa-led UPFA, however, would complicate the president’s plans to form a broad-based “national” government between the UNP, smaller parties and the reformist wing of the SLFP and place obstacles to further progress on much-needed governance reforms and reconciliation. Sri Lanka’s chance to finally start on the road to a sustainable resolution of the country’s decades-long ethnic strife, including a negotiated political settlement, depends on the outcome.

Colombo/Brussels, 12 August 2015

Commentary / Asia

A Dangerous Sea Change in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa government has initiated fundamental changes to policies on ethnic relations and the rule of law. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to continue its pressure on Colombo to strengthen rights-respecting governance while making it clear that it will not support programs which encourage political repression or discrimination.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020.

Since his election on 16 November 2019, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, have initiated fundamental changes to policies on ethnic relations, the legacy of a 26-year civil war, and the rule of law. Mahinda had previously served as Sri Lanka’s president and Gotabaya as defence minister during the brutal final phase of the country’s civil war, when troops under their command, as well as the separatist Tamil Tigers they fought, are credibly alleged to have committed grave violations of the laws of war. The new Rajapaksa government has reversed or announced its intention to abandon many key legislative achievements and policy commitments of the preceding United National Party (UNP) government, including promises on post-war reconciliation, accountability and inclusive governance made to the UN Human Rights Council and to the EU. The shift in policy, rooted in part in the ethno-nationalism of many among Sri Lanka’s Sinhala and Buddhist majority, threatens to increase ethnic and religious tensions and dangerously weaken checks on executive and state power.

The changes pose a deep challenge to EU policy in Sri Lanka, which has supported ethnic reconciliation, human rights and political stability rooted in inclusive governance – and which now finds itself at cross-purposes with the country’s leadership. Against this backdrop, the EU and member states should continue to press Colombo to honour commitments made by the prior administration to strengthen rights-respecting governance and the rule of law, while making clear that the EU will not support programs that encourage political repression or discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. Specifically, the EU and member states should:

  • Reiterate support for the reconciliation and accountability agenda agreed to by Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Resolution 30/1 (2015) and work to build support on the council for continued UNHRC engagement beyond the resolution’s expiration in 2021.
     
  • Communicate clearly in upcoming high-level meetings with the new Sri Lankan government that the EU has begun an informal review of the Generalised Scheme of Preferences trade and tariff concessions extended to Sri Lanka (known as “GSP+”) and that continued benefits are at risk if Colombo continues on its present course.
     
  • Review funding for UN-administered Counter-Terrorism and Preventing Violent Extremism programs, avoiding support for activities with a discriminatory focus on Muslims, and avoiding any engagement with planned “deradicalisation” or “rehabilitation” programs targeted at Muslims accused of involvement in militant activities without strict human rights protections in place.
     
  • Launch a full review of all policies and programs in Sri Lanka, including development cooperation and contributions to the UN-administered Priority Peacebuilding Plan, to ensure they support efforts consistent with European conflict prevention and human rights objectives.

A New Government and a Sea Change in Policy

The results of Sri Lanka’s presidential election in November 2019 reflect a deeply polarised country. Gotabaya Rajapaksa campaigned on a Sinhala nationalist platform and won thanks to unprecedented levels of support from ethnic majority Sinhalese voters, while Tamil and Muslim voters overwhelmingly rejected him. Among Rajapaksa’s 54 ministers are only two Tamils, and, for the first time since the nation became independent in 1948, no Muslim minister at all; there is only one female minister. Citing opposition among the Sinhala majority, Rajapaksa has repeatedly rejected any further devolution of power to the provinces, including what is mandated in the current constitution, thereby neutralising a mechanism intended to give ethnic minorities greater self-governance. Past statements by Gotabaya calling the large Tamil majority in the north “unnatural” heighten fears of military- and state-supported population transfer designed to change the demographic picture.

The status of Muslims as full participants in the country’s social, political and economic life is at growing risk.

The status of Muslims as full participants in the country’s social, political and economic life is also at growing risk. Following the ISIS-inspired 2019 Easter bombings – which killed more than 260, mostly Christian worshippers, and wounded many more – Muslims, especially Muslim women, whose use of face veils was briefly banned, have faced increased social discrimination and damaging economic boycotts. Radical Buddhist militants who back – and have in past had the backing of – Gotabaya Rajapaksa, have targeted Muslims for discrimination. All Sinhala suspects arrested for anti-Muslim violence have been released, with no prosecutions likely, while hundreds of Muslims remain in custody under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, many detained following the Easter bombings on questionable grounds and some reportedly suffering physical abuse and extortion.

Following a post-election statement by Mahinda Rajapaksa that indicated a desire to weaken religious and ethnic-based parties, Rajapaksa’s allies proposed a constitutional amendment that would dilute minority representation in parliament by increasing the threshold of votes needed for parties to be represented from 5 to 12 percent. Should the government endorse the amendment and gain the two-thirds parliamentary support needed to pass it, Muslim political parties would be unlikely to obtain any seats. This would further marginalise and anger a community that already feels under siege.

The Rajapaksas have also taken dramatic steps to consolidate their family’s control of the government. A 10 December presidential decree assigned responsibility for one third of all government departments to ministries headed by one of three Rajapaksa brothers, including, aside from Gotabaya and Mahinda, Chamal Rajapaksa, Minister of Mahaweli Development, Agriculture and Trade and State Minister of Defence. Gotabaya and other officials have announced their desire to reverse prior reforms that had reined in the presidency’s power. A proposed constitutional amendment would allow the president once again to hold multiple ministerial portfolios, and unilaterally to appoint judges, the attorney general, the police chief and other senior officials, without involvement of the constitutional council.

The new government also quickly rolled back police investigations into a series of high-profile political killings and disappearances during the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration – many, according to detailed evidence submitted to courts, allegedly committed by military intelligence units at a time when Gotabaya was defence secretary. Courts have released suspects in virtually all of the so-called “emblematic cases” of serious human rights violations and political crimes. Within days of Gotabaya’s election, the new government removed the lead police investigators’ security details, transferred them to menial jobs, and denounced them as traitors. The most prominent investigator, Nishantha Silva, fled the country fearing for his safety. The government has launched a review of all prosecutions of Mahinda-era abuses, which the Rajapaksas and supporters have long called politically motivated, and announced a presidential commission to investigate police and other officials responsible for the alleged “witch hunt”.

Gotabaya and Mahinda have long argued that the UN Human Rights Council’s Resolution 30/1 (2015) – which addresses reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka – infringes on the country’s sovereignty and betrays its war heroes. They particularly object to the provision for a special court to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes (something to which the UNP-led government was never fully committed). Gotabaya has made clear his government rejects the entire UN process and the commitments undertaken in that context by the previous UNP-led government. The current government’s blanket denial of any violations by the military or police requiring investigation or prosecution has returned Sri Lanka to the hardline positions of 2009-10, rolling back even the modest recognition of government excesses found in the conclusions of the 2011 Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The Justice Ministry has announced its intention to “review” the legislation establishing the Office of Missing Persons, one of two transitional justice institutions established by the previous government; many observers expect its powers will be restricted, or the office eliminated entirely.

Recommendations to the EU and Member States

EU policies in Sri Lanka will not reverse Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism, nor prevent the return to authoritarian rule that the Rajapaksas have already set in motion. Sinhala and Buddhist nationalism has deep roots, and challenges to Sinhala nationalism from outside Sri Lanka could further inflame nationalist sensitivities. Nonetheless, stressing the dangers posed from abandoning commitments on reconciliation and the rule of law to all Sri Lankans – and particularly about the importance of keeping open democratic space so citizens can challenge discriminatory and militarist policies, and build cross-ethnic political alliances to counter ethnic polarisation – is important. The EU, together with Sri Lanka’s other international partners, can and should also work to ensure their funding or other support does not inadvertently help implement policies that further marginalise minorities and threaten their rights – and thereby increase tensions that exacerbate the risks of violent conflict.

The EU’s first challenge will come in late February, when the Human Rights Council considers the latest update report from the UN High Commissioner on Sri Lanka’s implementation of the 2015 resolution. Should Sri Lanka put forward a resolution to formally repudiate and reverse 30/1, European members of the Council should throw their efforts into building a coalition able to win a contested vote. If Sri Lanka does not put forward such a resolution, members should reiterate their strong support for the reconciliation and accountability agenda agreed to by Sri Lanka as an essential element of the country’s long-term stability, while working toward a council coalition for follow-up action in 2021, when the current resolution expires.

The EU’s 2016 decision to reinstate GSP+ trade preferences to Sri Lanka, which gave a significant boost to its economy, was predicated on government commitments to implement a wide range of international human rights treaties. Particularly important was its promise to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act and replace it with new, human rights-compliant counter-terrorism legislation – a promise the new government reversed in January. The government has also rejected or appears unlikely to advance other rule of law and governance initiatives linked to GSP+ and discussed through the EU-Sri Lanka joint committee process – including prosecutions in the “emblematic cases”. After the biannual GSP+ monitoring report due in early February – which will consider only the previous government’s actions – the next report is not due until 2022. The European Commission and European External Action Service can use the leverage that GSP+ benefits provide by communicating in its next joint commission meeting and working group on governance that an informal review is already under way, and that the continuation of benefits hinges on whether the government corrects course and begins meeting commitments underlying the EU’s 2016 decision.

The EU should make clear it supports the ongoing UN human rights due diligence review of its engagement with Sri Lankan security forces.

With the return to power of a government whose senior officials are credibly alleged to have overseen grave human rights violations under the claimed rubric of counter-terrorism, the EU’s funding for UN-administered Counter-Terrorism and Preventing Violent Extremism programs needs to be carefully reviewed to ensure strict human rights protections are in place, including respect for women’s civil and religious rights as outlined in UN guidelines. The EU should make clear it supports the ongoing UN human rights due diligence review of its engagement with Sri Lankan security forces, and should avoid funding “deradicalisation” or “rehabilitation” programs targeted solely at Muslims accused of involvement in militant activities. The EU also should make clear to its implementing partners, UN Office on Drugs and Crime and UN Development Programme, that, if need be, they should redirect EU funding following a full review of their programs’ impact on conflict risk in Sri Lanka.

A full review of EU policies toward Sri Lanka and how they affect conflict risk and human rights probably will indicate that large portions of the UN-administered Peacebuilding Priority Plan (PPP) – a framework for coordinating international support to transitional justice, reconciliation and good governance, which the EU supports financially – will be difficult if not impossible to implement in the current political climate. The EU should support a full review and reframing of the PPP in light of this and should consider prioritising support to human rights defenders and independent media. The EU’s conflict review should also extend to its development cooperation. Development assistance – either directly from the EU or through multilateral institutions that receive EU financing – could unintentionally support government-sponsored population transfers designed to dilute the Tamil majority in the northern province and parts of the east.