The National Peace Council (NPC)

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In October 2015 the government surprised virtually everyone regardless of political spectrum, and friend and foe, when it co-sponsored the resolution on Sri Lanka by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. From the time that the war ended in 2009 onwards Sri Lanka came under pressure by this international body to investigate charges that massive violations of human rights had taken place in the closing stages of the war, which included war crimes. Together with crimes against humanity and genocide, war crimes constitute the triumvirate of international crimes for which there can be no amnesty according to current international standards. It may be a recognition of this that drives the opposition to insist that its leaders may face the electric chair.

Prior to October 2015, the Sri Lankan government headed by former President Mahidna Rajapaksa had resisted the international calls for accountability for past violations of human rights and international crimes. It strenuously denied the allegations and sought to mobilize international support in its favour. Although the government succeeded in 2009 due to the willingness of the majority of countries at the UNHRC to give the government the benefit of time to work out a solution this victory was shortlived. Thereafter on every occasion that Sri Lanka opposed the resolutions against it in Geneva, it lost and not surprisingly as the US itself led the campaign against the Sri Lankan government.



The re-opening of the EU fisheries market to Sri Lankan exporters came as a welcome success to the government at a time when it needs to show some tangible progress on the economic front to the people. The main criticism of the government amongst the general population is the absence of economic development and poverty alleviation in their lives. While a relatively small fraction of the population travels in luxury private cars, the general public continues to hang on to the footboards of overcrowded trains for their daily commutes to their workplaces and back with some of the train engines and carriages well past their fortieth year in service. Even those sections of the population who voted for the government at the last two national elections that saw the defeat of the old one are bemoaning the lack of economic progress in the present.

The government leaders spell out a vision of Sri Lanka as an economic hub of the region, but there is a disconnect as the general population’s experience of hubs related to the economy are the village and town markets which is what they are familiar with. The rising cost of living and absence of visible development, and job creation, are the chief observations they have to make about the economy. In this context the lifting of the fisheries ban by the EU which was imposed on the country over a year ago, will indeed imrprove the livelihoods of several thousands of fisher families and those who are at the bottom of the economic pyramid and help to improve the economy in general. The ban was imposed due to the failure of the previous government to comply with international standards and adequate control systems to tackle the problem of illegal fishing.



With bombs exploding in European capitals and other parts of the world, Sri Lanka finds itself in unique position in the world. It is a country that has not experienced a single act of terrorism in nearly seven years. The last of the terrorism ended in May 2009 when the three decade long internal war came to an end, albeit in a most violent way which has given rise to the international denunciation of war crimes. However, when comparing Sri Lanka to other parts of the world it is remarkable that following the end of the war there has been no act of terrorism. A part of the reason would be the years of experience gained in identifying and tracking down terrorist threats.

The only occasion in which the counter terrorism operations of the Sri Lankan security forces was put to active use in the post-war period was two years ago when a group of three alleged LTTE cadre were cornered in a patch of jungle by the security forces and shot dead. One of those killed was accused of having shot a policeman in the leg in an earlier getaway bid. But there was considerable suspicion at that time that the pre-emptive strike by the security forces to eliminate the three men was prompted by the government of the day for its own political purposes.



The government has begun to respond to the mounting criticism of its handling of the economy by explaining the background to the current economic crisis. The difficulty of the government to deliver economic benefits to the general population for more than a year since it assumed office is the biggest drawback it is facing at the popular level. Last week, development strategies and international trade minister Malik Samarawickrama gave a clear explanation of the government’s position on the economy in parliament. He pointed out that there were both external and internal constraints on Sri Lanka’s economic situation that were beyond the control of the present government. The external constraints included the economic downturn in China, the ongoing crisis in the middle east, the impact of the Syrian crisis on European economies and interest rate increase in the United States.



One of the positive features of the present time is the unity of the top leadership of the mainstream political parties. This was demonstrated in the eastern district of Ampara last week when the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) held its annual convention under the leadership of Minister Rauf Hakeem. The event was attended by President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition and Tamil National Alliance leader R Sampanthan, and Minister Mano Ganesan of the Democratic People’s Front representing the Indian-origin Tamils. Each of these leaders represents the mainstream of each of the ethnic communities that together constitute the Sri Lankan nation. There was a visible manifestation of goodwill and partnership between the respective party leaders on this occasion which was evidenced by the speeches they made.

The situation today is far removed from that described soul searchingly by Neville Jayaweera in his memoirs titled “Exorcising The Past And Holding The Vision” published in 2014. In that book the former civil servant recounts how government leaders in the 1960s considered those of the Tamil ethnicity to be potential enemies of the state. When he was sent as a young man to head the administrative service in Jaffna as the Government Agent, he was instructed to be tough on any requests or demands made to him the Tamil political parties and their leaders. The orders he received from his superiors were that, he “should be unrelenting towards Tamil demands, and wherever possible, force confrontations with them and establish the government’s undisputed ascendancy.” In his memoirs he also refers to the petty manner in which the government leaders of those years turned down opportunities to visit the north.



The issue of international participation in Sri Lanka’s transition process continues to remain a matter of speculation with different pronouncements being made by different members of the government. However, support for an international role in ascertaining the truth of what happened in the last phase of the war has received a boost due to the maiden speech in parliament made by former army commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. His credentials as a champion of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and unity as a state cannot be denied even by his political opponents. It was he who turned round the military debacles of an earlier period and achieved military success by leading from the front. Speaking in Parliament the former army commander said that Sri Lanka should permit foreign observers to participate in any inquiry on whether war crimes had been committed in the last phase of the country’s war.

During the period of the last government, the former army commander was victimised by its leaders who saw him as a potential threat to their monopoly of power. After the election of President Maithripala Sirisena the former army commander was compensated for the political victimisation he suffered and was also promoted from the rank of General of the army to that of Field Marshal. After the general election that saw the formation of a government of national unity, he was also appointed to parliament on the national list and thereafter made a cabinet minister. He disclosed that government decision makers during the final period of the war had asked him to get out from operational duties and assigned the political authorities to handle the military operations. In his maiden speech in Parliament that “If there are any who violated the laws then inquiries should be held and punitive actions taken against them.”



The visit by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera to the United States last month, and his assurance that the Sri Lankan government is contemplating international participation in the post-war acccountability process is an indicator of the pressure that the government is being subjected to on this issue. Neither the improvement in relations between Sri Lanka and the Western-led international community, nor the improvement in the human rights situation on the ground, is getting the international community to relent on the issue of international participation. However, there appears to be a willingness to give the government more time. The UN Human Rights Council resolution, which was co-sponsored by the Sri Lankan government last October, had highlighted “the importance of participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the Special Counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defense lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators.”

On the one hand, there are technical and credibility-centred reasons for having international participation in an accountability process that concerns the war. The first is that crimes associated with war are not part of Sri Lanka’s present legal framework. War crimes are a well developed part of international law but not of Sri Lankan law. Therefore the Sri Lankan legal community has little or no experience of dealing with the laws relevant to war, such as principle of proportionality and command responsibility in military action. This gives rise to a need for international legal expertise to be brought in, at least for an initial period of time. On the other hand, the credibility centred reason for international participation stems from the lack of confidence of the Tamil polity in the Sri Lankan judiciary at the present time.



At the next session of the UN Human Rights Council this March the government will need to present an update of its progress with regard to the resolution passed in October 2015. There has been some progress made by the government. More and more land in the North taken over by the military during the war is being returned, although about half of it still remains under military control. There has been a marked improvement in the freedom of movement and freedom of speech experienced in all parts of the country, and particularly in the former conflict zones. However, so far there has been little visible progress on establishing the mechanisms outlined by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera in the run up to the last session of the UN Human Rights Council last year. It was in this context that his visit to the United States and the positive US endorsement of the Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process is important.

The new government earned much international goodwill for Sri Lanka last year in Geneva when it reversed the policy of the previous government. This had been to largely showcase the reports of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and the Missing Persons Commission as adequate to address the problems of the past. With regard to human rights violations alleged to have been committed by the Sri Lankan military the former government appointed military tribunals that did not find anything of substance that called for further action. By way of contrast, speaking in Geneva on behalf of the government, Foreign Minister Samaraweera said that the government planned to deal with the past through a fourfold system that would include a Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation with a Compassionate Council of religious clergy attached to it, an Office of Missing Persons, a judicial mechanism with special counsel to be set up by statute and an Office of Reparations.



February 22 marks the anniversary of the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement in 2002 between the government and LTTE with Norwegian facilitation. This was an unexpected development that brought hope to the country that the war would come to an end and a peaceful solution to the ethnic conflict would be possible. Faced with the prospect of economic collapse, and a protracted war, the government of that time headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe sought to break the stalemate with a bold initiative. The sudden cessation of armed conflict came as a relief to the general population and almost immediately the wounds of war began to heal with people traveling for business and tourism from the north to the south and to the east. The benefits to the people of the peace process made it seem that it had become irreversible. But what was not seen so well at that time was that the ceasefire was only the start of the process, not its end. There needed to be a sustainable political solution that addressed the roots of the conflict.

The ceasefire agreement brought the country respite for four years from a war that had sapped its strength, and led the economy to shrink rather than to expand. If it had succeeded it would have saved tens of thousands of lives and obtained enormous economic resources for the country with the active support of the international community. After the ceasefire broke down in early 2006 the Ceasefire Agreement became seen as a political liability to the government that had signed it. The fact that neither the opposition nor the LTTE assisted the government to come up with a political solution was lost sight of. The ceasefire agreement became a subject of vilification for giving in to the international community and to the LTTE. The only ones who explained what it meant to the country were those who opposed it tooth and nail, and they gave it a one-sided interpretation. The ceasefire agreement of 2002 continues to be criticized for this even to this day by the nationalists and opposition politicians.



The visit of UN High Commisssioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein went more smoothly than expected for the government. The weeks before the visit of the High Commissioner had seen President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe making apparently contradictory statements on the issue of international participation in the post-war reconciliation mechanisms, especially in relation to the judiciary and accountability. This led to concern about the possibility of the government backtracking on the commitments it had made as a co-signatory to the UNHRC resolution in Geneva in October 2015. There was also concern that the visiting UN dignitary would be critical of the government’s approach to the post-war reconciliation process while in the country.

High Commissioner Zeid’s critical comments during his stay in Sri Lanka on the politicization and failures of the Sri Lankan judiciary prompted angry rebuttals in Sri Lanka and also led to the inference that he was making the case for international participation in the accountability process. A fixed and narrow position on this issue by the international community will place the government in a difficult position. The core of the political opposition to the transitional justice process within the country is the concern that the international community is eroding the country’s sovereignty with its insistence on the participation of foreign and Commonwealth judges, prosecutors and investigators as specified in the UNHRC resolution. It is this issue that the political opposition is likely to capitalize in order to weaken the government.



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