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Sri Lanka Between Elections
Sri Lanka Between Elections
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Unfinished Business in Sri Lanka
Unfinished Business in Sri Lanka
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

Op-Ed / Asia

Unfinished Business in Sri Lanka

Originally published in Inside Story

When UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon touched down in Sri Lanka yesterday, he arrived in a very different country from the one he last saw, immediately following the end of the civil war. Back then, in May 2009, he was shocked by the physical devastation and human toll of the final months of war, when as many as 40,000 civilians are believed to have been killed in the north and east. The internal review he ordered faulted the United Nations for its “systemic failure” to protect human rights and civilian lives at the war’s end.

Today, much of the physical damage has been repaired. Since 2015, a new government led by president Maithripala Sirisena has championed a reform agenda that includes important commitments to end impunity, promote the rule of law, and encourage reconciliation. Yet political, social and psychological wounds run deep throughout the country, threatening the fragile progress made so far.

The UN has a mixed history in Sri Lanka. On Ban’s last visit, the country was ruled by president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his powerful family, riding high on the wave of triumphalism and Sinhala nationalism that followed the military’s defeat of the Tamil Tigers. A panel of experts Ban appointed in 2010 found credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both sides. Although it was denounced by the government and its nationalist supporters, the panel’s report contributed to the series of increasingly strong resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council calling for accountability and reconciliation.

The defeat of Rajapaksa and election of Sirisena as president in January 2015 opened unexpected space in Sri Lanka for the Human Rights Council’s resolutions to be acted on. It also marked a growing acceptance that reconciliation required accountability for war crimes and for corruption and the abuse of power.

Sirisena’s new government co-sponsored a landmark resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council in October 2015, which committed his administration to establishing offices on missing persons and reparations, a truth commission, and a special court to hear cases of alleged crimes during the war – including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and sexual violence. The government also promised to investigate other human rights cases, restore the independence of the judiciary and police, reduce the role of the military and agree on constitutional reforms to address the political marginalisation of Sri Lankan Tamils, which gave birth to the years of war and terror.

UN agencies are actively supporting the Sirisena government’s reform agenda, but government efforts have been under-resourcedand weakened by mixed messages and confused lines of authority. Clear direction from the president and from prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been lacking. While there is much greater space for dissent, some improvement in rights protections, and progress towards a new constitution, there has been no decisive break with the culture of impunity. Meanwhile, key sectors within the government are actively undermining reforms.

Take, for example, the government’s pledge to the Human Rights Council that it would replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act with new laws consistent with human rights standards. Despite that undertaking, police continue to make arrests under this repressive legislation, and some 200 Tamils are still detained under its provisions, many held for years without charge.

Security officials have reportedly interfered with police investigations that implicate military intelligence units in murders and abductions during the Rajapaksa years. Defence budgets have grown and the military remains a powerful presence in Tamil majority regions, running hotels and other businesses and occupying large amounts of private land. Tamils are increasingly angry at the government’s failure to live up to its promises on all these issues.

Ban should urge that the military cooperate with the police and judiciary. He should also offer UN assistance for the Sri Lankan military’s transition to peacetime duties in two ways: by helping to assess its landholdings and assisting families returning to previously occupied land, and by assisting with job training for retiring soldiers and psycho-social support to veterans and families.

While parliament’s approval earlier this month of a bill to establish the Office on Missing Persons is a welcome first step, Ban must press the president and prime minister to implement all of its promises to the Human Rights Council. A key element of these commitments is a special court for war-related crimes, with the “participation… of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators.” With nationalists arguing this is an infringement on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, the president and prime minister have reversed position and rejected foreign judges.

Although the Sirisena government co-sponsored the Human Rights Council resolution last year, it now seems to be dragging its feet. It appears increasingly that the government does not intend to pass the legislation needed to establish the special court before the Council meets in March 2017, a move that could help to evade further international scrutiny.

Ban must make clear his support for continued oversight by the UN Human Rights Council until the government has passed the legislation needed to establish a strong court with the legal basis and the expertise – including international participation – to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Even if the government succeeds in winning approval for a constitution that reflects Sri Lanka’s ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity, that will not be enough to ensure reconciliation in the absence of accountability.

Ban should encourage Sirisena and Wickremesinghe to make a much stronger public case – especially to Sinhalese communities – in support of their transitional justice and constitutional initiatives. While resistance from Sinhala nationalists and the Rajapaksa-led opposition is real, strong public outreach and the government’s two-thirds parliamentary majority provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address both the causes and consequences of Sri Lanka’s thirty years of war. As part of this, Ban should also urge that the design of the court and the truth commission take into account the recommendations of public consultations now under way across the island.

Finally, Ban should acknowledge the UN’s failure to protect Sri Lankans during the final months of the war and its immediate aftermath, and commit the UN to an active role defending rights through its ongoing work in Sri Lanka. This should include an expanded presence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and improved vetting of the human rights record of military personnel who serve in UN missions – particularly with respect to allegations of sexual abuse.

Above all, UN member states must back up Ban’s words with the right combination of encouragement and pressure needed to deepen and sustain the potentially historic transformation now under way in Sri Lanka. With the UN’s help, Sri Lanka could yet build a state that respects the rule of law and protects the rights of all its citizens.