The 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council that started this week in Geneva will not be having any new UN resolutions with regard to Sri Lanka. This session will only see the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet make her report. But that report can set the direction for what will follow, with an EU assessment of the GSP Plus tariff privilege set for November. Sri Lanka is one of a handful of countries singled out for special attention as a follow up to the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka passed in March this year. This was not the scenario anticipated by the government last year in March when it withdrew from UNHRC Resolution 30/1 that was co-sponsored by its predecessor in October 2015. Despite the withdrawal, Sri Lanka has fallen into an unfavorable spotlight due to the new UNHRC Resolution 46/1 which was passed earlier this year over its objections by means of a vote.
The presidential proclamation declaring a state of emergency did not immediately provoke a negative reaction. In his proclamation, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stated that he was of the opinion this was necessary to ensure public security and maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community in view of the prevailing emergency situation in Sri Lanka in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The media has been showing images of hoarded sugar stocks being unearthed and taken away by the security forces to be distributed to the public. But those who hoarded the sugar or any other item were not arrested and the government has apparently paid for their goods. These could have been done without declaration of emergency. It is unclear whether the power of the government with its 2/3 majority was inadequate to handle this crisis without the emergency.
The government’s readiness to restart the reconciliation process and to engage with civil society organisations involved in it has been subject to both appreciation and scepticism. Those from civil society who have been involved have felt positively about the recent meetings they had with government leaders including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The president’s unexpected tweet that he would work with the UN to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation by implementing necessary institutional reforms came as a surprise as they were out of sync with the stances previously articulated by the government. Both the presidential and general elections that brought the government to power emphasized the enemies within and without rather than reconciliation.
There are indications that the government wishes to restart the reconciliation process that came to a halt with the defeat of the former government in November 2019 after four years of its rule and with many of its pledges unfulfilled. The victory of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the presidential elections brought the internationally backed reconciliation process to a halt. During the time of the previous government international experts set up offices, some even in the Prime Minister’s Office to work on reconciliation mechanisms. Two of them saw the light of day—the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations. However, the potentially most important one, the Truth-seeking Commission fell off the table due to the infighting between the former president and prime minister.
The withdrawal of the Kotelawala National Defence Academy (KNDU) bill which was to be debated in parliament this week offers more time to the government to reconsider its plans for higher education. The bill generated opposition from multiple parties. Trade unions, including ones supportive of the government such as the GMOA, political parties and civil society groups united in their opposition to the increased role for the military that was explicit in the bill. Due to their success in the war sections within the government and military have come to the conclusion that the military model, with its emphasis on discipline, unity of purpose that arises from a clear top-down chain of command, and ready availability of large numbers to perform tasks at short order, is a desirable model for governance in Sri Lanka. The super performance of the military in performing record numbers of vaccinations in an orderly manner has provided further evidence of the positive role of the military.
The government is making a resolute effort to turn Sri Lanka around and put it in the direction of rapid economic development. The systematic manner in which it has been conducting the Covid vaccinations has earned recognition by WHO as well as the international community. The value of the military in getting things done on a large scale with minimum of delay has been manifested in the partnership that they have struck with the health authorities. The memory is fading of how some of the government leaders dabbled in alchemy and the spirit world to find an antidote to the COVID virus, despite being vested with the responsibility to strengthen the health of the country’s people. There is also increased space being given to civil society to engage in protests, such as the protracted teachers’ strike and the agitation against the expanding mandate of the Kotelawala Defence University.
The government comfortably overcame a vote of no confidence in one of its key ministers over the rise in the price of fuel. Those who expected to have greater numbers supporting the no confidence motion miscalculated that the apparent differences and rivalries within the government would be uppermost. Any government, or institution for that matter, would have its internal differences. The current government is better secured against these differences that might otherwise split it into different competing parts on account of the familial bonds that bind the leadership together. The President, Prime Minister, newly appointed Finance Minister, as well as the former Speaker who is now Irrigation and Internal Security Minister, are closely knit brothers who have gone through trials and tribulations together.
The appointment of Basil Rajapaksa as Finance Minister comes at a time when the country’s economy is in shambles and large numbers of people are enduring hardship. His formal entry into the government, and the authority vested in him through a heavy load of government departments, has given rise to the hope that there will be greater rationality in government decision making in facing the economic challenges. Imports have been restricted and the entirety of the country’s foreign exchange reserve is committed to repaying foreign debt. It is necessary that there should be an influx of foreign exchange. The two key economic challenges that the new minister faces is to find new sources of loans and to preserve the export markets the country currently has. It appears that the reliance on Chinese finances alone, which was once thought possible, has reached its limits for both economic and political reasons.
The government has announced that it is taking steps to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with a law that is more in conformity with international standards. The Foreign Ministry reported it had informed the EU of action underway to revisit provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act with the study of existing legislation, past practice, and international best practices. The EU was informed of the decision made by the Cabinet of Ministers to appoint a Cabinet Sub-committee and an Officials Committee to assist it and to review the PTA, and to submit a report to the Cabinet within three months. The Officials Committee comprises officials from the Ministries of Justice, Defence, Foreign Affairs, Public Security, Attorney General’s Department, Legal Draftsman’s Department, Police, and the Office of Chief of National Intelligence. The Foreign Ministry also announced that the government will continue its close and cordial dialogue with the EU with regard to commitments, while demonstrating the country’s substantial progress in areas of reconciliation and development.
Emerging Possibility of Joint Problem Solving
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s address to the nation was a carefully scripted one delivered in a tranquil environment overlooking a verdant green landscape with an ancient Buddhist monument symbolizing tranquility in the far background. It was delivered without the trappings of state power, not even the national flag. It seems to have been an endeavor to project the benign personality of the president and evoke sympathetic support of the people. In recent months the president has been coming in for strong criticism in the social media that is outside the realm of governmental patronage and control. Much of the criticism would be planted by political opponents who seek to create an image of a president who is failing. A significant proportion of the criticism appears to be from people who voted for the president but are now disillusioned between his promise and their lived reality. In reality, a sense of despondency is gripping the country.