- 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.
- Created on 14 September 2015
The virtual non-existence of an environment of threat, especially pertinent to ethnic and religious minorities, and the non-stifling of dissent by opposition and civil society groups is continuing, much to the credit of the new government. However, the dawning of a society in which good governance alone will prevail continues to remain in question. Soon after the general election came the first blow to the new government’s credibility with the appointment of defeated candidates on the national list. This was followed by the appointment of a jumbo sized cabinet. The latest appointment to ministerial positions of politicians of dubious repute has dealt yet another blow to the government’s credibility.
Amongst the new ministers appointed to further swell the ministerial ranks of the government are those accused of having engaged in the trade of narcotics, using ethanol for alcoholic beverages and providing false evidence regarding the life of missing persons. These appointments would be particularly difficult to justify, especially to a government leadership that contested the general elections, and the presidential election before it, on a platform that was predominantly based on establishing good governance in the country. The credibility gap is made worse by the absence of serious efforts by the government leaders to justify their choices or even explain the constraints that induced them to take such a course of action.
- Created on 07 September 2015
Following the initial relief amongst those who wanted to see the change of government that took place in January sustained, the aftermath of last month’s general election is not generating the euphoria that accompanied that of the presidential election earlier in the year. The presidential election saw an immediate change of government, in terms of both personalities and policies. President Mahinda Rajapaksa who had undermined systems of government to impose his will on the polity was removed from power. There was a palpable lifting of the sense of threat from an oppressive government which was getting increasingly lawless and acting with impunity. The new government team began to swiftly implement the 100 Day Action Plan that they had promised during the presidential election campaign.
However, three weeks after the general election the new government has still to be finalized with nearly half of the ministerial slots still remaining to be filled. Almost all of the cabinet positions were filled last week, but all of the other ministerial positions remain undisclosed and unfilled. In the background of the delay in the appointment of ministers is the decision of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to form a national government through an alliance of the two largest political parties in Parliament. The slim majority that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s alliance obtained made it politically pragmatic for the two main parties to work together in Parliament rather than separately.
If the UNP and SLFP had not agreed to enter into an agreement to work together in a national government there would have been a danger of political instability due to the prospect of cross overs from one side of parliament to the other. This danger was magnified due to the proven ability of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to engineer defections in the past. He first showed this ability after becoming president in 2005. At the previous parliamentary election held in2004, the UPFA alliance won only 105 of the 225 seats, allowing it to form a minority government. Upon winning the presidential election in 2005, President Rajapaksa engineered defections from the opposition and increased the number of government MPs to 129, almost all of whom were rewarded with ministerial posts.
- Created on 31 August 2015
Within a week of former government’s second electoral defeat, this time at the general election, two senior representatives of the United States paid a rare joint visit to Sri Lanka. They were the first representatives of foreign powers to visit the country after the elections. They came even before parliament has met and the new government has been formed. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera was one of only three ministers to be appointed at the time of their visit. The speed of his appointment may have been due to the rapport he has demonstrated with the hitherto alienated sections of the international community. US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Sri Lanka after the presidential election and referred to him publicly as a friend. It can only help that Sri Lanka is viewed by the US positively at this time and not negatively.
The visit of US Assistant Secretaries Nisha Biswal and Tom Malinowski was a reconfirmation of the importance that the world’s dominant power places in Sri Lanka. At the height of the Rajapaksa presidency in 2009 when the confrontation between the former government and the US-led international community was building up, a visiting US Senate delegation recommended that Sri Lanka was too important a country for the US to lose. This was when the United States was leading the campaign to compel the Sri Lankan government to accept an international investigation into human rights violations in the last phase of the country’s internal war. The Rajapaksa government responded by mobilising anti-West sentiment both within the country and internationally to protect the Sri Lanka’s sovereign right to conduct investigations into itself.
- Created on 24 August 2015
At the presidential elections held in January this year Sri Lanka made its initial transition away from authoritarian rule in which ethnic nationalism was utilised to deliver repeated electoral mandates. The victory of the coalition of parties led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the General Elections on August 17 will ensure that the changes brought about at the presidential election will be sustained. The majority of Sri Lankan voters reaffirmed the choice they had made in January when they voted in President Maithripala Sirisena and rejected the siren call of narrow ethnic-based nationalism. The main significance of the latest election verdict is that it paves the way for transition to take place in two key aspects of governance. The first is that will consolidate the changes that have taken arbitrary power away from individuals and vested them instead in systems.
The question at the general election was whether the change that had taken place after the January elections would be reversed. The sustainability of the reformist good governance process lies in the fact that virtually all the political parties have agreed that the systems of government need to be strengthened. The second important transition that the country has taken as a result of the general election is the shift away from the governance approach of the UPFA period that saw the escalation of militarization in a state that suspected conspiracies against itself and the targeting of ethnic minorities as potential enemies of the state. There is now a need to journey towards a society that is truly multi-ethnic and multi-religious in its decision making and its choices.
The result of the general election ensures that the process of transition will not be reversed any time soon. Even though the UPFA challenge to the new governing coalition was very strong during the elections, now that the result is in, their challenge appears to have collapsed at least for the time being. Members of the defeated opposition are gravitating to the leadership of President Maitripala Sirisena who occupies the presidency of the SLFP as well as being chairman of the larger UPFA coalition. Bereft of a popular mandate, the twice defeated former president Mahinda Rajapaksa has little in tangible terms to offer to keep them loyal to him. It appears that many in the opposition would be interested in joining the new consensus government to be formed by the signing of an MOU by the UNP and SLFP.
- Created on 17 August 2015
Elections in a democratic polity provide an opportunity to assess the mind of the people. They are superior in gauging public opinion in comparison to any opinion poll which is necessarily of a sample of society only. During the last phase of the election campaign, there were reports of opinion polls that showed a last minute surge for the opposition. This countered previous surveys that showed a comfortable lead for the government. These coexisted with still other surveys that claimed the opposite. The choice of the electorate at this general election would provide an invaluable insight into the priorities of the Sri Lankan voter, especially whether they are moved more by emotion than by rationality. This applies both in the North as well as the South.
In the North, the main issue is whether the voters will support Tamil nationalism, and a confrontational posture against the government that is elected, or an accommodation with the government. The northern Tamil dominated electorate will have a choice of parties that are prepared to work with the government as well as those that are more geared to opt for confrontation and have the support of the separatist section of the Tamil Diaspora. Emotion might dictate confrontation but rationality suggests moderation, especially after the tragic experience of three decades of war. An indication of the strengthening of the post-war ethos of reconciliation is the entry into the electoral battle of rehabilitated LTTE cadre amongst whom the best known is a former bodyguard of the slain LTTE leader.
In the rest of the country, the main line of contestation is between the personality-based politics of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who has headed the opposition campaign on the one hand, and the good governance promise of those who governed the country for the past seven months on the other. A positive feature of the new order is the conduct of the elections by the election authorities. Unlike the presidential elections which took place under the former president’s government, there has been no significant abuse of either state resources or one-sided violence perpetrated against political opponents. Instead there has been a general observation of the election law by the contesting political parties and aspirants for parliamentary seats. These elections can be said to be the cleanest and fairest in a long time.
- Created on 03 August 2015
There are two attributes of election manifestos. One is for a political party to place its vision for the future and programme of action to achieve it before the electorate. Virtually all political parties have revelled in making excessive promises during election time. The election manifesto of President Maithripala Sirisena during the presidential election in January was different. As it focused on a 100 Day Plan, its promises were realistic. Many of the promises made have been implemented to a substantial degree. The main achievement was the passage of the 19th Amendment which reduced the president’s powers and strengthened the independence of institutions, such as the police, judiciary and public service, which are essential features of a well governed society.
The second attribute of an election manifesto is to provide the political party that forms the government to be able to refer back to its electoral mandate and justify its activities in the future. This would be especially applicable to those actions that are in the national interest, but are not so popular with the country’s people. Examples of this are hard to come by in Sri Lanka although there are examples from other countries. In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, apart from promises such as to even get rice from the moon to fulfil election manifestos, hardly any political party is willing to inform the electorate about the bitter medicine that is needed to resolve problems that adversely affect society.
- Created on 27 July 2015
The nascent rejuvenation of institutions since the change of government was demonstrated in an unexpected manner with the apprehension of a white van. These vehicles have obtained a notoriety that peaked during the last years of the war with the LTTE. The circumstances under which this particular white van came to light had all the classic features that made the white van an object of fear and intimidation during the previous decade. It had false number plates. It had army personnel in it. t was being driven in a manner that caused the policemen on duty to decide to stop it, and the occupants had behaved in a sufficiently suspicious manner to prompt the police to thereafter search the vehicle. This led them to find a pistol that belonged to none of the occupants of the van.
During the previous decade there were constant reports of the existence of white vans and their possible connection with the security forces of the state, but this was strenuously denied by them as well as by government leaders of that time. But although there was no official confirmation of their existence, and only repeated denials, the accounts of the white vans and their doings by those who claimed that their family members or colleagues had been taken away in them became a legend. They were much like ghosts that so many are afraid of, but which most have never seen. But we have heard so many stories of ghosts that many of us cannot help but believe they must indeed exist.
This time around, however, seven months into the new good governance programme of the new government the white van was caught beyond doubt. Now we can be sure that it exists, and not only one but possibly a large number of them. The fact that the policemen on duty felt themselves to be sufficiently empowered to stop a white van, question its occupants and publicise the event is something new. It is a new and welcome development. According to media reports, and police statements following the detention of the vehicle, the army personnel apprehended in it have denied that they were on any underground mission. They have said that they were on a routine journey, and the pistol that was found in it belonged to their commanding officer.