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.
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 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.
Prior to Independence Day there was an increasing concern about the extent of President Maithripala Sirisena’s commitment to the reconciliation process. These doubts surfaced with the President’s declaration that there would be no international involvement on issues arising from the war. He followed this up by saying that no war crimes had been committed in Sri Lanka and that the UN report only alleged human rights violations. Both of these assertions were given wide media publicity. They contradicted the government’s agreement with the UN Human Rights Council regarding international participation of foreign judges, prosecutors and investigators in a judicial accountability mechanism. It was left to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to exercise his damage control skills and assure the international community that Sri Lanka would stand by its international commitments.
President Maithripala Sirisena’s rejection of foreign involvement in the judicial accountability process in Sri Lanka has once again brought to the fore the difficult issue of war crimes in the course of the war. The most controversial aspect of the UN Human Rights Council resolution that was co-signed by the Sri Lankan government last October was the need for international participation in the judicial accountability mechanism. The UNHRC resolution stated that it “affirms that a credible justice process should include independent judicial and prosecutorial institutions led by individuals known for integrity and impartiality; and further affirms in this regard the importance of participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the Special Counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers, and authorised prosecutors and investigators.”
A high level delegation of EU officials was in Sri Lanka last week to have meetings with a cross section of society prior to engaging in discussions with their counterparts in the Sri Lankan government. When they met with civil society representatives they said that this was the first joint meeting on issues of human rights with the government and saw this as a positive breakthrough. They also said that they had come to see what had been delivered by the government in terms of the promises it had made. The media release that they issued after a joint EU-Sri Lanka Working Group on Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights concluded its first meeting in Colombo on 21 January 2016 stated that they expected the full implementation of the UN Human Rights Council resolution as a priority.
The participation of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and visiting British Minister Hugo Swire at the Thai Pongal celebration in Jaffna is an indication of the special attention that is being given to the northern polity by the government. The top leaders of the government have been making frequent visits to the north in a way that is unprecedented. During the years of the war it was dangerous for government leaders to visit the north as they were vulnerable to being attacked by the LTTE and other militant groups. But even prior to the war there was reluctance on the part of leaders of government to visit the north. Neville Jayaweera, in his memoirs of his time as a civil servant who dealt with the north five decades ago, writes about the petty manner in which the government leaders of those years turned down opportunities to visit the north. In contrast, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are frequent travelers to the north.
The government set the stage for the drafting of a new constitution when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe presented a resolution to Parliament on January 9 that would convene it as a constitutional assembly. The timing was symbolically important as this was the date that marked the commencement of President Maithripala Sirisena’s second year in office. President Sirisena was also in Parliament to make a special address to Parliament. The president’s commitment to stripping himself of the extraordinary powers of the presidency from the very beginning of his first term is without parallel in modern history. Within five months of his presidential election victory he ensured the passage of the 19th Amendment which, as a first step, reduced the powers of the presidency which he would henceforth wield. Now with the convening of parliament as a constitutional assembly he is paving the way for the total abolition of the office he holds.
The government has been responsive to public pressure in multifold ways. It amended the budget in 16 different areas due to protests by trade unions and affected groups even though the budget deficit grew by more billions. It is investigating a case of abduction by one of its members. It has been responsive to concerns expressed by civil society about the absence of participation in both the constitutional reform and transitional justice processes. Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe has appointed a 24-member committee from political and civil society to obtain views on constitutional reforms from the public. This Committee will seek oral and written submissions from the public and a report will handed to a Cabinet Sub Committee on Constitutional Reforms. In addition Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has appointed an 11 member committee to discuss and provide input on issues pertaining to the Geneva process.