By Jehan Perera –
The government’s decision to respond positively to a request by UN Human Rights Commissioner Navanethem Pillay to have an advisory and technical team visit Sri Lanka represents an important shift in government policy. The government’s previous position was that that the international human rights community had no role to play in investigating allegations of human rights violations within Sri Lanka, as that was a matter for the Sri Lankan government itself in conformity with the principle of national sovereignty. It was on this basis that the government opposed the UN Human Rights Council resolution in Geneva in March of this year which, amongst other things, mandated Commissioner Pillay to send an advisory and technical assistance team to Sri Lanka.
The invitation extended to the UN Human Rights Commissioner has not yet been officially announced by the government. It would undoubtedly have been a difficult decision for the government to make, especially as the government has also decided to hold provincial elections in three provinces to reconfirm that it continues to be popular amongst the general public. The government has been consistently critical of the international human rights community and mobilized internal political support for itself on the grounds of patriotism. The present concession would be the second one in recent times. Less than a fortnight ago the government made another concession when it came up with an Action Plan on implementing the report of the Lessons Learn and Reconciliation Commission. This was the main requirement of the UN Human Rights Council resolution in March.
Human rights organizations have been critical of the action plan. They have pointed to weaknesses and gaps within it. These include getting the military to investigate accusations against itself and postponing much needed political reforms to an indefinite future by the strategy of referring them to a still non-existent Parliamentary Select Committee on constitutional reform. However, those with a more pragmatic approach on these matters, such as the US government, have welcomed the government’s action plan as a step in the right direction. The US statement welcoming the action plan said it believed that full implementation of the action plan would benefit all citizens of Sri Lanka by furthering long-term reconciliation and lasting peace. It was the United States that moved the resolution at the UN Human Rights Council against Sri Lanka in March, asking for the expeditious implementation of the LLRC proposals as a means to achieve reconciliation within the country.
Human rights organizations that have critiqued the government’s LLRC action plan are more likely to be supportive of its positive response to the proposed UN advisory and technical team. The visit of such an UN team will provide an opportunity for them to meet with a diverse range of parties within the country, including local human rights groups and victims themselves, in addition to making on-the-spot visit to the battlefields in which the violations are alleged to have occurred. They will be able to gain an in-depth perspective of the situation in the country, its positive and negative features and the challenges it faces. This benefit was denied to the panel of experts appointed by the UN Secretary General in 2010, which was denied such access, and therefore came up with a report that was deficient in local perspectives.
The government may also be confident that it can show the international community that there have been more positive developments over the past three years than it is currently aware of. These would include the resettlement of war-displaced persons which is nearing completion in terms of the percentage of people who are no longer living in displacement centres. Roads have been opened and in general there is access to all parts of the country. In addition, the figures for abductions, disappearances and similar flagrant violations of human rights have been steadily dropping. The government may believe that the visiting UN team will be impressed by these developments on the ground which would compare well with other countries in similar post-war conditions.
In this context that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has asserted that more than 50 percent of what the LLRC has recommended has been implemented by the government. The government has often taken the position that its regular programmes of resettlement, compensation, livelihood assistance, infrastructure development and humanitarian problem solving are more than adequate to satisfy the relevant targets set by the LLRC. The government may be having a similar confidence where it concerns human rights issues that the international community is interested in. In particular the government may feel that the circumstances concerning human rights violations in the last phase of the war have been adequately put aside in the three years that have elapsed since the end of the war.
In post-war Sri Lanka there have been two major issues that have attracted the attention of the international community. One is the need for the government to go into questions of accountability for human rights violations in the past, specifically with regard to the last phase of the war. This has been the issue put forward most strongly by the Western countries and international human rights organizations. The resolution of the UN Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka in March 2012 in Geneva was sponsored by the United States and dealt with these issues. This has been a particularly important issue to the government as these are issues that can potentially target even the top leadership of the country.
The second major expectation of the international community is that there should be a political solution to the ethnic conflict in the aftermath of the three decade long war. While fighting the war, the Sri Lankan government repeatedly reassured the Tamil people and the international community that it was seeking the removal of the LTTE as an obstacle to such a political solution. The government also made various promises on this score, including improving the present system of devolved government and enhancing the powers granted under the 13th Amendment to the constitution to the unspecified level of 13 plus one. The basic requirement of a political solution is that there should be a fairer distribution of powers between the centre and the provinces, and between the ethnic communities, rather than overconcentration of power at the centre and total domination by the ethnic majority leadership.
The pressure on the government after the war with regard to a political solution that meets with the concurrence of the Tamil people has come mainly from the Indian government. By and large, India has not emphasized human rights and accountability issues to the extent that the Western countries have. This is why India’s support to the US-sponsored resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in March of this year came as such a bitter shock to the Sri Lankan government. After the vote there was speculation that India’s vote was to express displeasure at the lack of progress on a political solution. The question is whether the government will follow its accommodative stance on the issue of human rights with a similar accommodation on this issue. The matters at stake with regard to a political solution have greater political implications as they concern the sharing of political power.