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Sri Lanka: Jumpstarting the Reform Process
Sri Lanka: Jumpstarting the Reform Process
Managing the Disruptive Aftermath of Somalia’s Worst Terror Attack
Managing the Disruptive Aftermath of Somalia’s Worst Terror Attack
Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena (front) stands for the national anthem during a ceremony to swear in Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party, as Sri Lanka's new prime minister, Colombo, 21 August 2015. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawat
Report 278 / Asia

Sri Lanka: Jumpstarting the Reform Process

Seven years after its civil war ended, Sri Lanka’s democratic space has reopened but strains are building from a powerful opposition, institutional overlaps and a weakened economy. To make reforms a real success, the prime minister and president should cooperate with openness and redouble efforts to tackle legacies of war like impunity, Tamil detainees and military-occupied land.

Executive Summary

The unexpected chance for lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka that followed President Maithripala Sirisena’s January 2015 election faces increasing turbulence. Initial moves by Sirisena’s government halted and began to reverse the slide into authoritarianism and family rule under Mahinda Rajapaksa. Its reform agenda is ambitious: restoring the rule-of-law and ending impunity for corruption and abuse of power; a new constitution; a complex package of post-war reconciliation and justice mechanisms agreed with the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC); and major policy changes to jump-start a beleaguered economy. Progress, however, has been slower than key constituencies expected and lacks the coherence and resources needed to sustain it. The “national unity” government expanded the political centre and isolated hard-line nationalists, but the window for change has begun to close. Seizing Sri Lanka’s unprecedented opportunity for reform requires bolder and better coordinated policies, backed by a public relations campaign to restore sagging popular support.

The stuttering progress strains ties between the government and the constituencies that brought it to power. Tamils in the north and east voted overwhelmingly for Sirisena but are increasingly doubtful he will fulfil his reconciliation and justice promises. Many Sinhala “good governance” activists criticise the failure to follow through on rule-of-law measures, continued cases of alleged nepotism and corruption and what they consider the lethargic pursuit of corruption and criminal investigations. As the budget deficit grows and currency reserves dwindle, belt-tightening has been blocked or scaled back due to protests. At the same time, strains are growing between Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The small window for threading the political needles essential for reforms is shrinking. 

Institutional factors hamper progress: too few staff and too little expertise, particularly on reconciliation and transitional justice issues, multiple power centres and unwieldy, often overlapping ministries, and the different priorities and governance styles of president and prime minister. Governance reforms are slowed by need to work through bureaucrats and politicians implicated in past abuses, some of whom were given cabinet posts to help the government achieve the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to approve a new constitution.

Boldness is limited by Sirisena’s struggle to counter the faction loyal to ex-President Rajapaksa within his SLFP, especially in upcoming local elections. Reacting defensively to Sinhala nationalists’ attacks against Sirisena’s relatively modest reconciliation gestures and proposed constitutional reform and scared of giving opponents ammunition or angering the military and security services, the government has returned only a small portion of military-occupied land and released few Tamil detainees. 

Seven years after the end of the civil war in May 2009, issues of reconciliation and accountability remain largely unaddressed. The government appears to be backtracking on transitional justice plans, particularly the role of foreign judges and experts. The enormity of the crimes, especially in the final weeks of the war, makes them impossible to ignore but hard for the military and most Sinhalese to acknowledge or accept responsibility for. Mechanisms promised to the UNHRC feed Sinhala nationalist suspicions, while attempts to reassure Sinhalese and the military encourage doubts among Tamils about government willingness to pursue justice for wartime atrocities or back constitutional changes that satisfy legitimate Tamil aspirations for meaningful autonomy. 

To hold its coalition together and meet UNHRC obligations, the government must sequence reforms carefully, speeding progress on some fronts to rebuild public confidence, while committing resources to build support and institutional capacity for deeper and harder steps, particularly making progress on the critically important special court for prosecuting war crimes. Better communication and cooperation between president and prime minister, more transparent policymaking and clearer lines of authority are essential.

To rebuild confidence among Tamil communities in the north and east, the government must quickly release detainees and military-occupied land, begin credible inquiries into the fate of the disappeared, investigate and end abuses and repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). For these and other reforms to be sustainable, the president and prime minister will have to assert authority over the military and national security apparatus, including by developing a credible security sector reform plan. If they are serious about constitutional changes that will contribute to a lasting solution to the ethnic conflict, Sirisena and key ministers must make a much stronger public case for greater devolution of power.

Ending impunity and restoring rule-of-law are concern to the whole country, as seen in the popularity of good governance and anti-corruption citizen movements in the Sinhala south. To resonate more broadly with all ethnic groups and regions, measures for addressing the war’s legacy should be presented by the government and civil society as an integral part of the rule-of-law and good governance agenda. Moves to prosecute key cases of corruption and political killing under the Rajapaksa regime need to be backed by a sustained public relations campaign that articulates a broad vision of a reformed state, the links between the various initiatives and the benefits they bring all communities. 

As longstanding dysfunctional political dynamics reassert themselves, the government’s ability to distinguish itself from the Rajapaksa era, which is essential to its political survival, has begun to fade. If ethnic and religious chauvinists in all communities are not to grow stronger and belief in democratic reform that Sirisena’s election reflected and encouraged is to be rekindled, the government must make a concerted push to jump-start the flagging reform process.


To strengthen rule-of-law and democratic governance 

To the government of Sri Lanka: 

  1. Ratify the UN Disappearances Convention and pass enabling legislation criminalising disappearances; terminate the Paranagama commission on missing persons and transfer its investigation files to dedicated police investigation units. 
  2. Pass the pending Right to Information (RTI) Act and legislation to establish a well-resourced and empowered Audit Commission. 
  3. Repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and replace it, in consultation with lawyers and human rights defenders, with legislation in line with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations; and develop and publish guidelines for expediting cases against existing PTA detainees and releasing those against whom there is insufficient evidence to bring charges.
  4. Overhaul the Victims and Witness Protection Act, in consultation with human rights activists, to establish a well-resourced witness protection authority fully independent of police and security forces.
  5. End the longstanding conflict of interest in the Attorney General’s Department by establishing a permanent, independent special prosecutor for serious human rights cases in which state officials are alleged perpetrators. 
  6. Establish a clear focal point in the Attorney General’s Department, staffed by state counsels vetted for conflict of interest or involvement in past cover-ups, to oversee and prosecute emblematic cases of political killings and abduction currently under investigation.

To promote reconciliation, reestablish effective civil administration in the north and east and begin security sector reform

To the government of Sri Lanka: 

  1. Take immediate steps to end remaining military involvement in civil administration; remove the military from all shops, farms, hotels and other commercial businesses; and immediately suspend construction or expansion of military camps in the north and east.
  2. Establish, in consultation with communities and the military, transparent principles, processes and timetables for the return of military-occupied land or payment of compensation for land that is not to be returned. 
  3. End intimidating monitoring of civil society activists and ex-detainees by security services and appoint an independent, multi-ethnic, well-resourced internal affairs unit to investigate credible allegations of arbitrary detentions, abductions and torture in custody.
  4. Begin developing a longer-term plan for comprehensive security sector reform that includes job training for demobilised personnel; and devise and implement in the short term policies for handling individuals credibly alleged to be responsible for serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law.  

To support constitutional reform needed for lasting political stability

To the government of Sri Lanka:

  1. Launch a public outreach campaign, led by the president and prime minster, in support of expanded devolution of power to provinces.
  2. Support a mixed electoral system that maintains proportionality and the influence of smaller, regionally-dispersed parties through use of double-ballots.

To address the complex demands of transitional justice processes

To the government of Sri Lanka: 

  1. Reaffirm publicly the government’s commitment to full implementation of the 1 October 2015 UN Human Rights Council resolution and take initial steps to build capacity and public support for effective transitional justice, by:
    1. launching a coordinated public outreach campaign – involving the offices of the president and prime minister, the Reconciliation Secretariat (SCRM), National Unity Office (ONUR) and national dialogue ministry – to promote the value of transitional justice mechanisms and highlight links to broader rule-of-law measures, beginning with immediate distribution of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) report in all three languages once Tamil and Sinhala translations are available;
    2. giving the public consultation process adequate resources and endorsement and presenting draft legislative proposals to it for popular input, with a transparent timeframe for final submission to the parliament; 
    3. publishing draft legislation for the Missing Persons Office and inviting active input from families of the missing and disappeared and other stakeholders;
    4. establishing a timeline for training judges, lawyers and investigators for participation in the special war crimes court and for passing legislation establishing command responsibility as a mode of criminal liability and incorporating war crimes and crimes against humanity into national law; and
    5. requesting the OHCHR to recommend international prosecutors and judges for participation in the special court as committed to in the resolution. 

Colombo/Brussels, 18 May 2016

A Somali man reacts next to a dead body on the site where a car bomb exploded in the centre of Mogadishu, Somalia, on 14 October 2017. AFP/Mohamed Abdiwahab
Briefing 131 / Africa

Managing the Disruptive Aftermath of Somalia’s Worst Terror Attack

The 14 October 2017 twin bombings in Mogadishu mark the deadliest attack in Somalia since 2007. As Somalis unite in their disgust at the most likely perpetrator Al-Shabaab, President Farmajo must immediately provide care for victims and use surging support for the government to redouble efforts aimed at overcoming the divisions in Somalia's society that make Al-Shabaab such a persistent threat.

  • What happened?  On 14 October 2017, twin truck bombings in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, killed upwards of 300 people. Al-Shabaab, an Islamist insurgency, was almost certainly behind the attack, but has not claimed responsibility.
  • Why did it happen?  Al-Shabaab has been fighting the government since 2007. The targets of the attack are unclear, though may have been government buildings and the base of African Union forces fighting Al-Shabaab.
  • Why does it matter?  The attacks have united Somalis in disgust at Al-Shabaab and may shore up support for Somali President Farmajo’s government. They also illustrate the challenges he faces: not just Al-Shabaab’s resilience, but chronically weak security forces; escalating friction between the government and federal states, which the Saudi-Qatar spat has worsened; and longstanding clan disputes, all of which Al-Shabaab exploits. 
  • What should be done?  The first priority is to care for victims and cope with the attacks’ aftermath. President Farmajo and his government should also improve relations with federal states and address disputes underpinning political infighting. Cleaning up corruption in the security sector and local reconciliation remain priorities.

I. Overview

The devastating twin truck bombings in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu on Saturday, 14 October 2017, mark the deadliest attack in that country since the current phase of its war began in early 2007. It almost certainly was perpetrated by the Islamist insurgent movement Al-Shabaab, though there has been no claim of responsibility. The death toll most likely will exceed 300, the vast majority ordinary Somalis, including dozens of children, going about their daily business. The immediate priority is to care for victims and deal with the aftermath. Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo”, his government and its foreign partners should also redouble efforts to mend the divisions in Somali society and the chronic weaknesses in the security sector that make Al-Shabaab such a persistent threat.

The first and deadliest bomb exploded at the Zoobe Junction in Hodan – a bustling commercial mini-district close to the Red Crescent office and ministries of education and foreign affairs (the foreign minister was grazed by flying glass and debris). Whether the principal targets were the government buildings, as some reports suggest, or a nearby military training camp recently built by the Turkish government, is unclear. A second and smaller blast, that killed twelve, occurred at Ceel Qalow near Halane, the base of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM).

Al-Shabaab, an insurgent group fighting to overthrow the Somali government since 2007, is the only organisation with the capability, motive and experience to pull off anything on this scale. That it has neither denied nor claimed responsibility may reflect its reluctance to take responsibility for an attack that has provoked unprecedented anger and revulsion (it similarly avoided claiming a 2009 attack on a graduation ceremony in Mogadishu) and/or its hope that rumours and conspiracy theories – most peddling the idea of security forces’ collusion – continue to sow confusion.

Despite having suffered military setbacks since 2011 at the hands of AMISOM, Al-Shabaab remains resilient.

Despite having suffered military setbacks since 2011 at the hands of AMISOM, Al-Shabaab remains resilient (see Crisis Group Commentary, “Somalia’s Al-Shabaab Down but Far from Out”, 27 June 2016). It controls tracts of rural south central Somalia and supply routes between towns, pursues a steady campaign of car bombings, assassinations and other attacks in Mogadishu and has targeted and in some cases overrun isolated AMISOM and Somali army bases.

According to multiple sources, the attack at Zoobe Junction involved an ageing TM (Bedford) truck – a model formerly used by the Somali army and ubiquitous in the country – converted for civilian use as a cargo transporter and packed with explosives. It reportedly originated from the Shabelle Valley and is thought to have passed several checkpoints manned by Somali soldiers on the Afgoye-Mogadishu road. The explosives may have been concealed by cargo, and thus harder to detect without thorough screening or specialised detectors (attempts to introduce sniffer dogs at checkpoints have run aground because many Somalis view the animal as unclean under Islamic law, though such dogs are now used at the airport). It is also plausible that soldiers were bribed to allow the truck through.

Although full responsibility for the horrific attacks lies with their perpetrators, a number of recent trends may have contributed to Al-Shabaab’s ability to mount an operation of this scale and should inform the response of President Farmajo’s government and its foreign partners.

II. Losing Territory around Mogadishu

Al-Shabaab recently recaptured several areas in the Shabelle Valley, including the town of Bariire, only 45km outside Mogadishu and on a major route to the capital. Those areas fell to the movement after government forces pulled out early this month, in protest that some had not received salaries for three months. Averting attacks in Mogadishu is ever harder when surrounding districts revert back to Al-Shabaab control or when communities, incensed by government corruption and dysfunction or by civilian deaths during counter-terrorism operations, provide the movement tacit backing. Al-Shabaab consistently plays on anger at officials’ graft – Somalia is ranked the world’s most corrupt country by Transparency International – to win support.

The government’s efforts to secure Mogadishu largely involve mopping up illicit weapons, reigning in clan militias and putting up barriers on arterial roads into the city. But these measures are not enough. Corrupt, unpaid soldiers and discontented clans on the city’s peripheries enable Al-Shabaab operatives to infiltrate. The organisation’s elite Amniyat (intelligence) cells for years have been active in the city, penetrating state security structures, gathering intelligence and assassinating government officials and informants.

III. Infighting among Security Forces

The Somali army and other branches of the security services have been under considerable recent strain.[fn]Crisis Group’s Watch List 2017, 24 February 2017.Hide Footnote Rising factionalism and clan tensions triggered skirmishes in September, when a Somali army unit and elements of the newly-established Mogadishu Stabilisation Unit engaged in a firefight[fn]At least six killed as rival Somali troops clash in Mogadishu”, Voice of America, 16 September 2017.Hide Footnote that left six soldiers dead. Such clashes often involve competition for control of turf, checkpoints and other sources of revenue. They undermine morale and cohesion in the security forces, erode the military’s effectiveness and make it more likely that troops or factions collude with the enemy. The defence and army chiefs recent resignations, as well as the army’s retreat from parts of the Shabelle Valley, may have been related to such problems.

Until the tragic attacks, Mogadishu’s overall security this year had seen gradual if modest improvements.[fn]SRSG Keating briefing to the Security Council”, UN Assistance Mission in Somalia, 13 September 2017.Hide Footnote Assassinations and car bombings have been less frequent and deadly than in past years (of which 2016 was the deadliest) and Somali security forces have foiled several attempted vehicle-borne improvised explosive devise attacks. Better training, vehicle checks and patrols on major urban roads have almost certainly helped. But the endemic wrangles between official security forces appear to have allowed insurgents an opening to mount a major attack.

IV. Political Tensions

Mounting tension between Mogadishu and Somalia’s federal states has also impacted security. The rift between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, on one hand, and Qatar on the other, has aggravated such friction. As the Saudis and Emiratis develop direct links with federal states and undermine their relations with the federal government, tensions have grown over which side of the Gulf dispute to back. This also diverts attention from security problems in Mogadishu.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi also have stopped direct budgetary support to Somalia, affecting the federal state’s ability to pay soldiers, police and intelligence officials. Saudi Arabia in October agreed to release $50 million to the Somali government,[fn]Somalia gets $50m in Saudi aid”, Middle East Monitor, 3 October 2017.Hide Footnote but sources say this is a one-time donation, not a resumption of its previous budgetary support. So long as Mogadishu remains “neutral” – ie, refuses to explicitly back the Saudis and Emiratis in their dispute against Qatar – Riyadh is unlikely to resume its prior assistance. Yet, with Qatar and its ally Turkey also major donors, the Somali government is understandably reluctant to pick sides in this dispute between its partners.

V. Priorities for the Government

The next weeks will be crucial for President Farmajo’s government. Fury on the street at Al-Shabaab could shore up support for the government and provide momentum for efforts to overcome divisions in Somali society. But there is also a risk that the president’s opponents, especially those in the federal states, could attempt to capitalise on the crisis with the goal of ousting him and his government. Even in the weeks before the attacks, rumours of plans by regional governments to introduce a no-confidence vote in parliament were intensifying. The federal states’ formation of a caucus and issuance of a critical communiqué at the end of an 11 October meeting in Kismayo only deepened speculation.[fn]Somalia: Federal states suspend constitutional reviews”, Garowe online, 11 October 2017.Hide Footnote Such upheaval could easily play into the insurgents’ hands.

The government [...] should work quickly to improve relations with federal states and address the constitutional questions that lie at the roots of much of the political infighting.

Of course, the government must cope with the aftermath of the attacks and ensure victims receive necessary support. But it also should work quickly to improve relations with federal states and address the constitutional questions that lie at the roots of much of the political infighting, especially those related to resource sharing and devolved powers. The government has invited the federal state presidents to discuss main points of disagreement, including the Gulf crisis, over the coming weeks. This is positive and ought to be supported.

Reforming and cleaning up the security sector is another imperative. Unless the Somali leadership prioritises such efforts, the significant external investment in that sector will fail. Present rates of corruption fuel insecurity. For its part, AMISOM has made significant inroads in reversing Al-Shabaab’s territorial control, but it is overstretched and struggles to fight a non-conventional war against a resilient insurgency that feeds off local conflicts and, frequently, the heavy-handed tactics of its enemies, whether African, Somali or U.S. forces. Somali forces’ inability to secure and govern areas taken, often with heavy losses, by AMISOM saps morale. Partly in an effort to force the government to prioritise security sector reform, some troop contributors now threaten to wind down operations in the next two years. While Somali forces must gradually assume more responsibility, a hasty AMISOM withdrawal would be disastrous, almost certainly ceding larger parts of the country, including main towns, to Al-Shabaab.

Political divisions – between the government and federal states and among clans – pose a grave obstacle to reforms. Redoubling efforts to address such divisions, including through clan-level reconciliation, are critical in themselves but also a prerequisite for security forces’ coherence and motivation. If not built on solid political foundations, training and arming units in the Somali forces could end up aggravating instability.

In this light, a bottom-up, national reconciliation process and political settlements between the government and federal member states, and among those federal states, should be a top priority. Somalia’s key partners, the European Union (EU), UK, U.S. and the African Union (AU) should continue to promote such efforts. In tandem, federal states, supported by Mogadishu, should launch grassroots initiatives to reconcile clans and make local governance more inclusive. Somalia’s Western partners could accompany this process by supporting state administrations to boost their role in intra- and inter-clan reconciliation and help reinforce local security forces.


Nairobi/Brussels, 20 October 2017