The tragedy at Meetotamulla, in the outskirts of Colombo, where a massive garbage dump came crashing down on people living on its perimeter, has generated an outpouring of support for the victims and frustration about the failure of successive governments to deal with the problem. About 40 persons are confirmed dead and several more remain unaccounted for giving rise to speculation that the actual death toll may be even higher. Unfortunately, this was a tragedy that could be seen to be coming. Those living in the vicinity of the garbage dump had been agitating for many years about the dangers posed to them by the prospect of disease and also by the stench but to no avail. In the meantime the mountain of garbage simply grew and grew and grew.
Countries re-emerging from decades of violent internal conflict are encouraged, sometimes against their will, into following an internationally prescribed trajectory of transitional justice. This is a concept that has taken root within the UN and international human rights systems after decades of being honed by practitioners and academics in the field. The basic idea of transitional justice is that accountability and punishment are necessary if there is to be sustainable peace, democracy and justice in those cases of protracted conflict in which there have been large scale violations of human rights.
The International Women of Courage award to Sandya Ekneligoda by the US government, and presented to her by First Lady Melina Trump, was a symbolic affirmation that the fate of victims of enforced disappearances is an international priority that will not be negated by either time or official denials. Sandya Ekneligoda’s husband, Prageeth, a journalist, disappeared in 2010 just a few days before the presidential election that saw President Mahinda Rajapaksa win a second term of office. Prageeth backed the opposition. When he went missing many motives were attributed to it, including going to France, working with the LTTE and gathering evidence of financial crimes of government leaders. But whatever the motivations of those who made Prageeth go missing, his enforced disappearance like those of thousands of others is a heinous crime. It is an international crime that all countries of the world are duty bound to prosecute by virtue of the international covenants they have signed.
In the public perception there is a sense of drift in the constructive activities of the government on all fronts. President Maithripala Sirisena has been attempting to overcome this sense of drift by political means. He has been having public programmes that enhance his own visibility. An example would be the SLFP Youth Convention where he expressed his intentions of holding the much delayed local government elections this year. He also gave leadership to a public exhibition of locally manufactured products at the BMICH which attracted large crowds who were able to make purchases at relatively low rates. However, his oft repeated pledge to have a cabinet reshuffle does not appear to be reaching fruition.
The government achieved its main goal at the UN Human Rights Council at the session just completed in March. It was able to obtain a two year extension to deliver on the promise it made at a previous session of the UNHRC in October 2015. There is a consensus that the government’s performance has been inadequate. The government itself has not denied this. Not one of the four reconciliation mechanisms that the government promised to establish are yet operational. Only one of them, the Office of Missing Persons, has received parliamentary assent, but it is still only on paper. The OMP has yet to be operationalized. In the meantime, the fate of missing persons continues to remain as unknown as it was 18 months ago when the government promised to set up an Office of Missing Persons which would be tasked with the mission of ascertaining the whereabouts of those still missing or what actually happened to them.
The draft resolution on Sri Lanka that is currently before the UN Human Rights Council gives Sri Lanka the additional two years that the government sought to deliver on commitments made 18 months ago. The extended time frame to be granted to Sri Lanka reflects the confidence that the international community reposes in the good faith of the government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. It also reflects the absence of other viable options with regard to hastening the transitional justice process in Sri Lanka. Transitional justice as mandated by the UN system consists of truth seeking, accountability through courts of law, reparations and institutional reforms to ensure that there will not be recurrence of human rights violations.
In a change from the past the ongoing session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva is no longer generating political passion at it did in the past. There is a sense amongst most people that the present government is on good terms with the international community unlike the previous government. Therefore they see no real threat emanating from Geneva. This has enabled the government to engage in a flurry of legislative activities that have not attracted so much of public interest. The government has drafted legislation to amend the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Act and a gazette notice has been issued in this regard. The draft legislation will be presented in Parliament shortly. The government has also presented a Bill to parliament to ratify and implement the 'International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance'. Sri Lanka became a signatory of this Convention in December 10, 2015.
The weekend after the opening session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, I went to the public library to exchange books. While standing in line to return the borrowed books, I was approached by one of the other library members standing in line. He had seen me on television at the opening session in Geneva where I was part of the government delegation but representing a civil society perspective. This event had received wide coverage in the Tamil media in particular. He urged me to ensure that the victim survivors of the war should be compensated by the government without delay. He said they needed jobs and money to look after their children and the disabled needed to be provided with artificial limbs in addition.
Constitutional reform is once again on the front burner of the national agenda. The election manifestos of both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2015 gave high priority to it. The government started strongly with passage of the 19th Amendment through parliament. In an unprecedented act of statesmanship President Sirisena voluntarily relinquished much of the power he was vested with as executive president of the country and reduced the term of office of the president. This was followed by the government appointing a Public Representations Committee on constitutional reforms comprising leading public intellectuals drawn from academia and civil society. They were mandated to canvass the views of the general public on constitutional reform in a hitherto unprecedented manner.
A year ago a contractor whom I spoke to rejoiced that corruption was much reduced under the new government. He said that the minister in charge of his area of work had merely asked for a donation to be made to support a public institution. Though this donation had nothing to do with the contract, he was happy to oblige, as it was for a public cause and not for the minister’s personal pocket. When I met this same contractor last week he was a disillusioned man. He said that business was good, but that corruption had gone sky high, and there was no limit to what was now demanded. Although perhaps still less than it was under the previous government, corruption is on the rise and is likely to get worse unless government policy changes and there is the political will to implement it right from the top.