By Jehan Perera –
The ongoing deliberations of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva have not yielded any surprises. Delivering a joint statement on behalf of Macedonia, Montenegro, the United States and the United Kingdom during the UN High Commissioner’s report on Sri Lanka, held on 21 March 2018 in Geneva, the UK said Sri Lanka is safer and freer than it was in 2015. However, it added that it was disappointed that the pace of progress has been slow. It stated that “Much still remains to be done to implement Sri Lanka’s commitments. We remain concerned about reports of abuse of authority by some security officials. And multiple incidents of inter-communal violence, attacks, and hate speech against minorities are alarming and demonstrate the need for reconciliation efforts.”
“As Sri Lanka acknowledged with its co-sponsorship of resolution 30/1, devolution of political authority through constitutional reform is integral to lasting reconciliation and non-recurrence of violations and abuses. Families of disappeared persons from all communities have waited too long for answers. We urge that the Office of Missing Persons be fully operational without delay, and for meaningful steps to establish the other transitional justice mechanisms outlined in resolution 30/1. Effective security sector reforms, repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and release of more military-occupied land to civilian ownership, will all help build trust and confidence.”
Although the sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva no longer occupy media headlines as they did in the past when the previous Sri Lankan government used the occasion to confront the international community, they continue to be important. Unfortunately this does not mean that the country is able to deal successfully with the issues identified in the resolution. The suspicions and mistrust that continue to undermine inter ethnic relations within the country are an obstruction to their implementation. The TNA and the Tamil Diaspora represented by the Global Tamil Forum have been urging the UNHRC in Geneva to extend the period of their scrutiny of the implementation of the resolution. This is because of their concern that if such international scrutiny ceases there will be even less incentive for the government to continue with the task.
Last year the Sri Lankan government requested the UNHRC to grant it a two year extension in which to deliver on the commitments it had made at the October 2015 session. The council extended reporting on the implementation of its recommendations for an additional two years to allow the government to make the progress needed. However, the resolution of October 2015 is a very comprehensive one that envelops the entirely of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. These are issues that have failed to be solved in the past. The past practice has been that the opposition parties unite to thwart the effort. The National Unity government that was formed in January 2015 gave hope that this problem could be surmounted because the two main political parties were in partnership.
One of the most unfortunate features of the present time is that the government alliance shows signs of disintegration. This is on account of the rivalry between the two parties including their leaderships that shows no signs of abating, and for which statesmanship is required if it is to be overcome. The debilitated condition of the government was seen in its poor electoral performance at the local government elections held last month. The opposition parties made use of the co-signed resolution to allege that the government was too subservient to foreign powers to conduct an emotive campaign against the government. It used arguments of nationalism, patriotism and betrayal that showed its potential to sweep the government off its feet at other national elections to come.
In this difficult context, there is a positive role that the international community can play. Its nurturing role of can be seen in the manner in which specialized international agencies have taken on responsibility for supporting the establishment of viable reconciliation mechanisms that the government has promised. It would be more constructive for the international community to be supportive rather than add to the pressures on the government in a manner that would further undermine it electorally. An example of constructive support would be the role played by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
For many years this organization has played a key role in gaining humanitarian access to the war zones of the North and East and even now for looking into the issue of missing persons. Sri Lanka was one of the 18 countries invited by the ICRC earlier this month to participate in an international conference to discuss challenges related to humanitarian access and negotiation in Asia. Topics for discussion during the conference included the growing role of faith-based organization and religious leaders in times of conflict and humanitarian crisis. The potential of the Office of Missing Persons that the government has recently established and the role that the ICRC can play in this was discussed.
Similarly the International Organisation of Migration (IOM), one of the specialized UN agencies in Sri Lanka recently held an international conference on the role of reparations in the transitional justice process. The cabinet approved the draft law that will establish an Office of Reparations, as pledged by the government in terms of the UNHRC resolution of October 2015. At the conference examples from other conflict-ridden countries where reparations had been used to meet the needs of victims and to send a message of care to those who had been victims from all sides were discussed. This type of collaboration between international and national experts points to the way forward in the transitional justice process.
The UNHRC resolution of October 2015 is a comprehensive one. It deals with the two most controversial political issues in the country. The first is that it sets out a framework of transitional justice that is meant to take countries from situations of violence and state breakdown to an improved state of peace with justice. Accordingly four mechanisms have been proposed, particularly to deal with the past. The UNHRC resolution prescribes the establishment of an Office of Missing Persons, an Office of Reparations, a Truth Commission and also a special judicial accountability mechanism (Special Court) that has international participation. It also presents the need for constitutional reform in which devolution of power could be improved.
The need for an extended time frame arises from the highly contentious nature of some parts of the resolution and to which the Sri Lankan government agreed in October 2015.The issue of constitutional reform and the sharing and devolution of power has been on the national agenda for many decades but without success. It is unrealistic to expect a problem that has lasted for 70 years to be resolved in a matter of two plus years. Similarly the issue of setting up a special court with international participation to punish those guilty of human rights violations and war crimes in the course of fighting the war against the LTTE is politically controversial. Both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have publicly gone on record that there will be no hybrid court in which foreign judges will sit alongside Sri Lankan judges to decide on the culpability of Sri Lankan security forces.
At the recently concluded local government elections, the opposition made use of both the issues of war crimes and constitutional reform to blame the government for betraying the armed forces and the country and taking it in the direction of division. The significance of the co-signing of the UNHRC resolution in October 2015 was that the international community and the Sri Lankan government became partners in the endeavour to bring reconciliation to the country. The experience of other countries is that such accountability processes are either unsuccessful or take place after the passage of many years, when the issues are no longer so emotive and controversial. A partnership is about mutually supporting each other to achieve the fulfillment of the objectives of the partnership. It is not about one partner pushing another partner to the brink where the possibility of no-return looms large.