The National Peace Council (NPC)



The government’s decision to invite three eminent international legal experts on human rights and war crimes to advise its Commission of Inquiry into Missing Persons was unexpected. It caught even senior cabinet ministers by surprise. The government had been steadfast in denying that serious human rights violations and war crimes took place from the commencement of such allegations more than five years ago. So far all inquiries conducted by the government have reaffirmed the government’s position that no such offenses took place. But as those have been a case of the military investigating the military and exonerating the military, the inquiries have not been internationally credible. The appointment of the independent UN investigative team to probe into these matters following the resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council in March of this year appears to have jolted the government to reconsider its past position.

It is noteworthy that the UNHRC resolution of March 2014 had two operative parts to it. The first was to call for an investigation into the past by the Sri Lankan government that met with international standards. The second was to call for the Office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner to commence an independent investigation if the Sri Lankan government failed to carry out such an investigation itself. The appointment of the experts and expanding of the mandate of the Commission comes after the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights launched its own investigation on the war and appointed three experts, also of the highest international calibre and credibility, to oversee the probe. Now by appointing its own three member advisory panel, the government seems to be striving to operationalise the first part of the UNHRC resolution with the hope of diminishing the need for the implementation of the second part.



The ambiguously worded directive from the government’s NGO Secretariat responsible for monitoring non-governmental organizations, and which calls on NGOs to operate within their mandate, has led to strong criticism from a range of actors. These include the main opposition party, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and the international community. The circular issued by the NGO Secretariat that was posted to more than 1400 NGOs throughout the country stated that “It has been revealed that certain Non Governmental Organisations conduct press conferences, workshops, trainings for journalists and press releases which is beyond their mandate. We reiterate that Non Governmental Organisations should prevent from such unauthorized activities with immediate effect.” This statement has led to the apprehension that NGOs as a sector, and as a whole, are being prohibited from conducting press conferences, training journalists and issuing press releases.

The circular put out by the NGO Secretariat is ambiguously worded. There are two ways in which it can be interpreted, and the common view taken by the NGOs and detractors of the government is that the government meant it for the worst. They have all been very critical of the government and voiced their condemnation of this attempt to restrict the freedom of expression and association of civil society groups. The Bar Association said the NGO Secretariat had violated the fundamental principles that governed a free and democratic society guaranteed by the constitution and it was completely militating against the rule of law principles of the country. “We observe that this attempt is nothing but yet another effort to silence the alternative public opinion of the society through inculcating fear psychosis among the section of the society enhancing the autocratic writ to a fearful height."



Addressing members of the national advisory committee to the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration, Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara gave substance to the conviction of those who believe in the prospects for peaceful coexistence and harmony within Sri Lanka’s multi ethnic and multi religious society. He said that a majority of MPs of the government were opposed o the actions of the extremist groups that had engaged in anti-Muslim activities. The position of those MPs reflected the broad sentiments of their electorates. Minister Nanayakkara himself has been at the forefront of the government urging that strong action be taken to deter hate speech and extremist violence.

In this context the denial by Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa that he had a relationship with the BBS who stand accused of being the instigators of the violence is reflective of the widespread revulsion, both locally and internationally, over the spike in anti-Muslim violence that was seen in Aluthgama last month. This denial of any connection or involvement with the BBS is a welcome disassociation even if it comes late. The Defence spokesperson also refuted the allegation that the Defense Secretary, who is counted as among the most powerful in the country, has any special relationship with the BBS. He clarified that the Defense Secretary’s attendance at a public ceremony at which the BBS was also present, and which has generated much controversy, had nothing to do with any association with it.



It cannot be coincidental that hardly two weeks after the UN Human Rights Commissioner named the team that would investigate past human rights violations in Sri Lanka, the South African reconciliation initiative is also moving forward again. There was a pause for a while, but once again there is an appearance of movement. A high powered South African delegation headed by its Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to be in the country in the next few days. This was a visit that was expected to take place in June. But the visit was kept in the background, perhaps due to the protests raised against any South African or foreign mediation by nationalist coalition allies of the government. However, the appointment of the three experts to advice and guide the investigating team appears to have jolted the government to once again present the South African initiative as an alternative.

The main difference between the South African and UN initiatives is that they look at past with a different emphasis. The South African initiative is explicitly meant to promote reconciliation as its first priority. It combines an ascertaining of the truth about the past with the pursuit of political reform that is based on the lessons learnt from the past. On the other hand, the UN investigation has its main objective as being to ascertain the past so that those who have committed wrongs and serious crimes could be held accountable and brought to justice. The government’s concern is to protect those of its political and military leaderships who can face punishment by international tribunals. It is unacceptable to the government that those who led the war against the LTTE, which resulted in unexpected success, should be punished after having defeated the LTTE in battle.



The government appears to have woken up to the gravity of the problem posed by repeated attacks on the Muslim community. The police have announced that they will not permit meetings that cause ethnic or religious hatred to be generated. This new policy is to be welcomed to the degree that it is implemented in fact, and is not simply restricted to rhetoric. The police have become a scapegoat for permitting the BBS to hold the public rally that ended up in anti Muslim violence. However, there is a doubt whether the government will instruct the police to go ahead and arrest and prosecute those who instigated the violence and that this will be done on the ground. Although President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself has denounced those who engage in violence, the indications are that the momentum in favour of continuation of sporadic violence that keeps the country on tenterhooks will be hard to reverse in these circumstances.

The latest victim of anti Muslim carnage has been the large “No Limit” Department Store in Panadura, a town that is close to the scene of the large scale anti Muslim violence the previous week in Aluthgama. Although the preliminary police reports stated that it was possibly due to an electrical fault in the middle of the night, the timing of the fire suggests a connection with the previous violence. The Police Spokesman has been reported as saying that a group had asked all Muslim shops to be closed on Thursday but No Limit stores in Wellawatte and Dehiwela had remained open. Six persons, four in a three wheeler and two on a motorbicycle had met the managers at the two shops and demanded to know why they remained open while other shops were closed. This suggests a pre-planned operation, just as much as the way in which the Aluthgama violence took place suggests another pre-planned operation.



The international human rights community’s determination to pursue with its probe into alleged war crimes in the last phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war is widely seen within Sri Lanka as evidence of prejudice against the country. However, what has happened to the Sri Lankan government must not be seen in isolation from international developments. Some of Britain’s most senior military and political figures now face a war crimes inquiry as the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced it would make a “preliminary examination” into claims of “systemic” abuse by British forces in Iraq. More than 400 individual cases are cited, representing “thousands of allegations of mistreatment amounting to war crimes of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." In a statement on its website, the ICC said “The new information received by the Office alleges the responsibility of officials of the United Kingdom for war crimes involving systematic detainee abuse in Iraq from 2003 until 2008.”

The British government has sought to downplay these allegations but at the same time affirmed that they will conduct their own investigations. The Attorney General has said that the government "completely rejects" claims that British forces had been responsible for systemic abuse and pledged to do "whatever is necessary" to show any allegations were being dealt with within the British justice system. He described British soldiers as ”some of the best in the world” and said “the vast majority” of the armed forces “operate to the highest standards, in line with both domestic and international law.” At the same time the Attorney General indicated willingness to cooperate with the ICC investigation saying “I will provide the office of the prosecutor with whatever is necessary to demonstrate that British justice is following its proper course."



In addition to being subjected to international scrutiny on account of war-time human rights violations Sri Lanka is now coming under international scrutiny for religious intolerance. Several incidents have highlighted the rise of Sinhalese nationalism that is at odds with the requirements of national reconciliation that includes the ethnic and religious minorities. These have included attacks on mosques and churches. The attacks on Christian churches have been going on for the past two decades at least. Most of these attacks have been against the new churches that are active in attempting religious conversion allegedly by unethical means of providing for the material needs of those whose conversion is sought. However, as most of these conversions take place at the local level and in relatively poor areas, they do not receive much media publicity. They are one of the unacknowledged problems concerning inter-community relations in the country.



The outcome of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a let down to the Sri Lankan government. There was a general expectation in Sri Lanka, fueled by the optimism of government leaders that a new era of relations would open up when the President of Sri Lanka met the new Prime Minister of India. In particular there was the hope that the vexatious international pressure on the government to proceed with a political solution on the basis of the devolution of power to the Tamil-majority areas of the country would subside. But this did not happen. On the contrary, Prime Minister Modi was uncommonly blunt and precise in calling on his Sri Lankan counterpart to begin delivering on his oft-repeated promise to the international community of a political solution that goes beyond the 13th Amendment.



The Sri Lankan government sees in the Indian Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi a new opportunity to win India over to its side. President Rajapaksa has made sure that he will be off to a flying start with his decision to be present at the swearing in of the new Indian Prime Minister, who had tweeted that it was a great pleasure to talk to the Sri Lankan President when he made his congratulatory call. It is clear that the Sri Lankan government leadership senses, or believes there is, a resonance with the new Indian leadership. Indeed, the change of government in India has opened up the possibility of a new dimension of personal warmth to enter into the relationship between the two leaders of Sri Lanka and India. There is every possibility of the personal charisma of President Rajapaksa, and his closeness to the ethos of the masses of people, to find resonance in the new Indian Prime Minister.

However, there is a danger of reading too much into the personal relations between leaders. Politicians and the general public have a tendency to prioritise the role of individuals in history. When Russia annexed Crimea, much of the debate in the international media revolved around the personal motivations of President Putin. In reality, however, individual leaders have a limited ability to affect international relations, which are primarily driven by geopolitical and socio-cultural forces. President Putin is important no doubt, but only insofar as he reflects the values and goals of his inner circle, a broader coalition of the elites that back him, and, no less importantly, the general population. All parties represented in the Duma (Russian Parliament) were behind the annexation. In the Duma vote, 445 votes were for the annexation with only one against. Not only did President Putin’s party, United Russia, support him, the other three parties, Just Russia, the Liberal Democrats and even the Communists, were also behind him.

This same prevalence of national interests over personal relationships can be seen in Sri Lanka’s own experience with India in the past. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike enjoyed a warm personal relationship with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Both were women leaders, both were widows bringing up families, and both were strong in their leadership. But when the Pakistan civil war broke out and India moved to cut off West Pakistan from East Pakistan, Prime Minister Bandaranaike gave permission to Pakistani airplanes to refuel in Sri Lanka. This would have been in opposition to India’s interests, but the Sri Lankan Prime Minister decided to act in Sri Lanka’s longer term interests. She was backed in this by the key decision makers within her government. During Sri Lanka’s own civil war, Pakistan was one of Sri Lanka’s staunchest allies, and its defense of Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in March of this year was very special.



The election of a new government in India opens up new vistas for Sri Lanka’s relationship with its closest neigbour. With his congratulatory phone call to the Indian Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi,President Mahinda Rajapaksa took the initiative to rebuild ties with India. Relations with India have grown strained due to the Indian stance on issues relating to the country’s Tamil problem and the government’s prevarication regarding promises of devolution of power made to the Indian government. The President’s ability to get a phone call through a very busy Narendra Modi just after his party’s victory at the election was being announced shows the special nature of the relationship that Sri Lanka can enjoy with India. This is an opportunity that comes from both geography and history and needs to be carefully built upon so that it is an asset and not a liability.



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