- Created on 23 November 2015
It was the post-presidential election period that began in January this year that saw dramatic changes in the polity. The fear of government backed death squads and mob violence was totally eradicated to the relief of political dissidents and ethnic minorities who had been under threat. These positive changes at the ground level were accompanied by the major political reform of the 19th Amendment which divested the presidency of much of its arbitrary power and strengthened the system of checks and balances. However, in the aftermath of the general election in August a sense of stagnancy in government became pronounced. For the past three months in particular there had been a sense of drift in the government. The main slogans centering on good governance that had propelled it to victory at two successive elections held in January and August appeared to be in abeyance.
In addition, in the past few weeks the polity became focused on infighting between members of the government on issues of corruption and conflict of interest. There was no change in the country that could capture the popular imagination except for the government’s co-sponsoring of the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council. On the one hand this eased the tensions that Sri Lanka had with the Western countries and paved the way for its return to their economic fold. But this agreement was a double edged sword as it was also attacked by the political opposition as being a betrayal of those who had fought against the LTTE. The visit of US Ambassador the UN, Samantha Power, to Sri Lanka at this time when the world is focused on what is happening in the Islamic countries and Europe is an indication that Sri Lanka is being given a special status and may even obtain extraordinary US support as a result. Ambassador Power is known as a close confidante of US President Barack Obama.
- Created on 16 November 2015
The ISIS attacks in Paris and the French government’s declaration of a state of emergency are a grim reminder of the politically motivated violence that once held sway in Sri Lanka. In contrast to many other countries in the world today Sri Lanka is an oasis of peace and political stability. The military suppression of the LTTE made this peace possible. It was the excesses that took place in the final stages of the war, and in its immediate aftermath that put Sri Lanka in the international limelight, though for negative reasons. Thereafter the country was subjected to three resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council against the wishes of its government, until the new government decided to cooperate with UN.
The French government has said that it will be ruthless in its response to the terrorism that has struck it. International humanitarian law prohibits war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. But it does not prevent ruthless responses against those who are aggressors. Sri Lanka is an example where the military response was successful. It may have to be armies on the ground that have to root out the ISIS as was done to the LTTE in Sri Lanka. When a militant organization is unwilling to negotiate and seek an end to violence, the military response will dominate. The more protracted the war against the ISIS is, the more turmoil and terrorism is likely to be the outcome. However, a military solution cannot be the final answer. The roots of conflict need to be addressed through dialogue and political solutions that include the other.
- Created on 09 November 2015
Buddhist monks have been central figures in Sri Lanka’s history. It is they who recorded the early history of the country and its people in the ancient chronicle of the Mahavamsa. They were the guides of the Sinhalese kings and the protectors of the Buddhist religion. When foreign powers invaded the country they even accompanied the armies that went to confront the invaders. They were, and remain, the guardians of the Sinhalese Buddhist civilization of Sri Lanka. Venerable Maduluwave Sobitha belonged to this tradition. He emerged as a national figure on this account. He became a subject of international controversy when his photograph appeared on the cover of a book titled “Buddhism Betrayed” by Professor Stanley Tambiah of Harvard University who was of Sri Lankan Tamil origin.
- Created on 02 November 2015
The 25th anniversary of the Muslim expulsion from the north was observed last week through a number of events, including in the north. The most high profile commemorative event took place in Colombo with a panel discussion held under the aegis of the SLMC and its leader Minister Rauff Hakeem. The key speakers were political leaders from all communities and included Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, Resettlement Minister D M Swaminathan and TNA parliamentarian M A Sumanthiran. There were also prominent civil society representatives who spoke on the occasion including law lecturer N Selvakkumaran of Colombo University, independent researcher Mirak Raheem and Shreen Saroor who represented the voice of the displaced northern Muslim community.
The strong sense of goodwill that permeated the discussion was manifested by TNA parliamentarian Sumanthiran’s pledge that he would speak up louder on the issue even though he has spoken loudly about it in the past. The government representatives in their speeches made it clear that they wanted to heal the wounds of war and repair the damage to the victims to the extent possible. Minister Samaraweera addressed the “post-independence failure to build a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka that is united and undivided both on the map and in its citizens’ hearts and minds.” He referred to the notion of majoritarianism that made a majority community unwilling to accept a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society in which the majority will not discriminate or oppress the minority.
- Created on 26 October 2015
This week marks 25 years since the Muslim people inhabiting the north were evicted by the LTTE in a matter of hours that ranged from two hours to two days. Their treatment in Jaffna, the seat of Tamil civilization, was particularly harsh as there they were given only two hours to leave. Those who tried to take their valuable possessions with them, such as deeds to their land, jewellery and money, were stripped of them at the LTTE checkpoints. In many places their Tamil neighbours intervened on their behalf but to no avail. The LTTE was not a democratic organization that heeded the voice of the people when it differed from their purposes. Five years later, in 1995, the Tamil people living in the Jaffna peninsula suffered a similar fate at the hands of the LTTE when they were ordered by them to evacuate rather than come under the Sri Lankan military who recaptured the peninsula.
Today about 80 percent of those Muslim families who were evicted from the north continue to live outside it. Many have successfully rebuilt their lives. Despite the ruthless nature of their displacement only a few of them lost their lives so that the family units, the greatest long term strength of any community, remained intact. But in every other aspect they lost heavily, their moveable properties, their jewellery and their traditional homes and villages. There are complications attached to their return although six years have passed since the end of the LTTE. As a result the majority of the Muslim people who were displaced remain in a state of frustration and distress over their fate, which spills over into the larger Muslim community of being unjustly treated. The problems faced by this section of the Sri Lankan population and finding a just solution have not been given either the governmental attention or priority that it deserves.
- Created on 19 October 2015
In October the final consultation of the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) took place in Geneva and brought together nearly one thousand humanitarian workers from all parts of the globe. The holding of the consultation came with the severe crisis that the world faces due to humanitarian catastrophes taking place today which has seen millions of people displaced and on the move. The most violent manifestations of this crisis have come primarily from the Middle East, where a group that uses terror and operates outside of international law, the ISIS is causing havoc and taking over large chunks of territory of formerly sovereign countries and is establishing state-like structures in them.
The consequences of these conflicts in the Middle East have led to a massive wave of migration last seen over seven decades ago during the Second World War with people from formerly prosperous countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria fleeing their countries by the millions. The media images of people who never thought that their ordered lives would be turned upside down on the run to safety are haunting ones, and have prompted many countries, especially in Europe which had restrictive immigration policies to open up their borders to cope with the humanitarian crisis.
- Created on 12 October 2015
The co-sponsoring of the Geneva resolution by the government and the support given to it by the TNA is a positive indication of the evolution of a spirit of partnership and joint problem-solving at the highest levels of national and international decision making that is necessary for promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka. However, this goodwill needs to be seen in practical terms at the ground level too in which people become the direct and immediate beneficiaries. Most people appear prepared to give the new government a chance at this time. It is important that the people’s confidence in the process of transition is sustained. However, observations from the ground are that the majority of people are not aware of the significance of the resolution or the content of its recommendations. In the North there is frustration at the slow pace of change.
There are groups both in the North and South of the country that are trying to generate opposition to the UN resolution. A group of 71 Sinhalese university academics have issued a public statement expressing their opposition to the involvement of foreigners in the accountability process. In the North, on the other hand, there are Tamil groups that are angry that the resolution does not provide for the setting up of a fully international judicial mechanism. In Paris, Tamil Diaspora activists even went to the extent of violently attacking a meeting at which parliamentarians from the TNA were speaking. They accused the parliamentarians of betraying the Tamil people by agreeing to less than an international accountability mechanism. The TNA which won the overwhelming majority of parliamentary seats at the general elections has been taking a moderate approach in its relationship with the government.
- Created on 05 October 2015
By co-sponsoring the resolution on Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka the government has taken the initiative with regard to the implementation of its recommendations. Some of the recommendations are controversial. The main controversial recommendation is to set up a judicial accountability mechanism with international participation. But the gain for the government is that it is in charge of the implementation. In addition, for the first time since 2009 when Sri Lanka was taken before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the government succeeded in obtaining the unanimity of the members of the international community represented there regarding Sri Lanka’s future.
The time table for reporting back to the UN Human Rights Council gives the government a degree of flexibility in getting its implementation mechanisms in order. The government is expected to give its written report on implementation in March 2017, which is 18 months away. At that time the government will have to defend and justify its progress or lack thereof in the implementation of the recommendations to be found in the resolution. Prior to that there will be a continuous assessment made of the implementation of the recommendations by the UN High Commissioner who will also be giving an oral update to the UN Human Rights Council in nine months.
As can be expected the opposition parties took the view that the government gave in to the Western led international community by agreeing to co-sponsor the resolution on Sri Lanka. They have argued that by co-sponsoring the resolution, the government is left with no option but to implement the recommendations which have been imposed on Sri Lanka. The previous government which was led by those who are now in the opposition argued that the successive resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council were damaging to Sri Lanka’s interests. But they could not prevent the resolutions being passed despite their opposition, and each time the resolution was stronger in terms of what was being imposed on the country.
- Created on 28 September 2015
The government took a major step forward in rejoining the international community on equal terms when it reached agreement with the United States and other Western countries in the UN Human Rights Council to co-sponsor the resolution on the future its post-war accountability process. For the past six years Sri Lanka was on the defensive internationally for its conduct of the last phase of the war. From 2012 onwards it was at the receiving end of increasingly adverse resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council. The resolution in 2014 mandated an international investigation into the past. Each year the meetings of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva became the occasion of confrontation abroad and for political mobilization within the country in which ethnic nationalism took the centre stage.
The new government’s agreement with the United States to co-sponsor the draft resolution that will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council on Wednesday is an indication that both sides sat together to sort out the problem. Unlike its predecessor the present government has acted on the rational basis that a policy of confrontation would not solve the problem but only aggravate it. Although the confrontational approach of the previous government was popular at home it was leading to an internationally imposed outcome which would have made a bad situation worse. The government’s problem solving approach enabled it to convince the United States, and other Western countries, to drop the specific reference to a hybrid judicial mechanism. This was the most controversial feature of the UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report on Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka.
- Created on 21 September 2015
The long anticipated UN investigation report into alleged war crimes committed during the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war was released last week by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The investigation team has made strong indictments against both the government and LTTE forces for war crimes. The most contentious aspect of the report is likely to be its recommendation that the government should “adopt a specific legislation establishing an ad hoc hybrid special court, integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators, mandated to try war crimes and crimes against humanity, with its own independent investigative and prosecuting organ.”
The Sri Lankan government is reported to have requested the UN and members of the UN Human Rights Council to allow it to carry out a domestic judicial probe rather without setting up a hybrid court with international personnel. Public opinion in Sri Lanka amongst the Sinhalese majority is decidedly against any international investigation into the past. The UN investigation is seen as instigated by those who wish to reverse the outcome of Sri Lanka’s three decade old civil war that came to an end with the defeat of the Tamil rebellion by government forces. Last year, the United States which sponsored the resolution that established the investigation called for an international investigation. The draft resolution that is now being circulated amongst the member countries of the UN Human Rights Council refers to the need “to involve international investigators, prosecutors and judges in Sri Lanka’s justice processes.”
The release of the UN Report on alleged war crimes and human rights violations in Sri Lanka’s war is an important step in the country’s transition to reconciliation as it requires the government and people to give their attention to the unhealed wounds of the past that continue to fester in the body politic. It is to be noted that even prior to its release, the government had developed a complex and well thought out mechanism to be led by Sri Lankans. Last week the government announced a mechanism to deal with the past that will be based on a four tier system which will include a Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation, an Office of Missing Persons, a judicial mechanism with special counsel to be set up by statute and an Office of Reparations.