In the wake of mass protests that forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign in July 2022, Sri Lanka’s interlocking economic and governance crises remain acute. Austerity measures, introduced in part to win financial support from the International Monetary Fund and foreign creditors, have brought additional economic hardship for many Sri Lankans already struggling with collapsing living standards. Forthcoming economic reforms could provoke renewed protests. President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s reliance on Rajapaksa allies for his parliamentary majority will likely constrain fulfilment of promises to increase financial accountability, strengthen rule of law institutions, reduce impunity and corruption, ensure the rights of Tamils and Muslims, and address the legacy of the 1983-2009 civil war. Building on Crisis Group’s work during and after the war, we advocate for international humanitarian assistance, as well as inclusive governance reforms to strengthen democratic institutions and support a lasting, equitable peace.
The Sri Lankan government has long evaded the UN Human Rights Council’s requests that it hold accountable perpetrators of atrocities committed during the country’s 26-year civil war and since. Absent changes responsive to its concerns, the Council should keep up the pressure.
Govt began 2024 with raft of legislation to expand powers of surveillance and repression and advance its contested reconciliation agenda, while police crackdown on drugs led to tens of thousands of arrests.
Govt moved to retain and expand surveillance powers. Parliament 24 Jan passed govt’s Online Safety Bill, despite uncertainty whether it included amendments required by earlier Supreme Court review; civil society and opposition parties criticised expansive powers law would afford state to regulate speech on social media, as opposition lawmaker labelled it “threat to our democracy”. Global tech and social media companies 16 Jan urged govt to withdraw bill. Govt 10 Jan presented to parliament proposed Anti-Terrorism Act, which was only modestly changed from version first introduced in early 2023 that was roundly criticised; Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) 19 Jan criticised new draft, while bill’s constitutionality was challenged in numerous Supreme Court petitions.
Govt sought to advance its reconciliation program amid opposition. Govt 1 Jan publicised text of legislation to establish Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation amid near unanimous opposition from survivors’ groups and rights activists who view it as designed to win support at UN Human Rights Council. Parliament 9 Jan passed legislation to establish eleven-member “Office for National Unity and Reconciliation” despite opposition from most Tamil parliamentarians and many civil society groups. Police 4 Jan arrested and detained for eight days prominent Tamil woman campaigner seeking truth about enforced disappearance of her son, following protest against President Wickremesinghe’s visit to northern town of Vavuniya.
Police faced criticism for heavy-handed drug crackdown. Public Security Minister Tiran Alles continued to champion police operation which to date has led to arrest of over 40,000 suspected of using or selling drugs and detention in prison or “rehabilitation” centres of more than 3,000; while popular among some parts of public, OHCHR 12 Jan criticised “heavily security-based response to country’s drug problem”.
International creditors recognised economic progress. International Monetary Fund officials 19 Jan stated reforms had produced first signs of recovery but stressed importance of “sustaining the reform momentum”.
Commissions of inquiry and ad hoc committees have been used for decades as a way of obscuring the truth and avoiding accountability [in Sri Lanka].
For more than ten years, the [UN Human Rights] Council has pushed Colombo to hold accountable perpetrators of atrocities during the [Sri Lankan] civil war.
[Sanctions for Sri Lankan officials] are a timely reminder that continued impunity will bring increasing costs to the government’s international reputation.
Sri Lanka's interlocking economic and political crises remain acute. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2022 – Autumn Update, Crisis Group lays out what the EU and its member states can do to mitigate the risks of needed reforms.
Originally published in The Hindustan Times.
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 is embroiled in nationwide protests amid deepening economic woes and increasing political volatility. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Alan Keenan analyses the implications of the crisis, which could have lasting political and economic effects.
Sri Lanka’s president has named a veteran anti-Muslim agitator to head a legal reform task force. Critics have called the move “incomprehensible”, but it is readily understood as a way to divert discontent among the government’s Sinhala Buddhist base toward an embattled minority.
The UN Human Rights Council will soon discuss Sri Lanka, where the new government has scotched truth and justice efforts related to the 1983-2009 civil war. The Council should demand accountability for past crimes but stress that Colombo’s present policies may spark further deadly conflict.
The politically-motivated Presidential Commission of Enquiry has been distorting politically-connected criminal suspects into victims, and investigators and legal reformers into criminals.
Twice postponed because of COVID-19, Sri Lanka's parliamentary election finally took place on 5 August. The SLPP's electoral victory should be understood not simply as a result of dissatisfaction with rival party UNP, but of the failure of its internationally-backed liberal reform agenda to gain lasting traction with Sri Lankan voters.
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