By Jehan Perera –
The disquiet about the government’s commitment to deliver on its promises is now extending itself to those sections of the international community that gave their support to the government on the basis of its commitment to human rights and reconciliation. The sense of disenchantment amongst the general population is also getting more pronounced. The common factor is the failure of the government to deliver on its promises. With regard to the general population it is the continuing failure to deliver economic development that directly benefits those who depend on governmental largesse to get them out of poverty. It is also the ineffectiveness of the government’s anti-corruption programme that is reflected in the failure to take cases through to their conclusion.
However, with regard to the international human rights community, and Western governments, the focus is more on the slow pace of reconciliation initiatives that have an impact on those who have long been victims of the conflict. This sentiment is not confined to the international community but also includes the ethnic minorities who are beginning to feel more convinced that their interests are being neglected by the government in order to cater to ethnic majority sentiment. They are even beginning to see overtly hostile intent in actions such as the presidential declaration that extends forest cover (Wilpattu) to areas in the North that have been sites of traditional settlement by the ethnic minorities, in this case primarily the Muslims, prior to their displacement by the war.
The negative reception extended by members of the government to the report of the Consultation Task Force on reconciliation mechanisms has added to the sense of disquiet within the international community and ethnic minorities. The government-appointed Task Force obtained submissions from the general public, many of whom were directly affected by the three decades of war. The Task Force focused its findings on the commitments made by the government to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in October 2015. The government’s commitments included setting up four new reconciliation mechanisms, namely a truth commission, an office of missing persons, an office of reparations and a special court to try war crimes. The government also pledged to make the laws more human rights-friendly and to demilitarize the former war zones of the North and East.
The Task Force recommendations have met with the support and appreciation of the international human rights community and the ethnic minorities. The recommendations seek to meet international standards. The report itself provides material that is invaluable in terms of concepts and cases that could be used for a public education campaign. However, the lukewarm if not negative response from those in the government is clearly visible. The problem that the government seems to be having is that the Task Force recommendations do not correspond to the general sentiment in the ethnic majority Sinhalese population. This is especially true of the recommendation that there should be international participation in the proposed special courts, with its provision for foreign judges, prosecutors and investigators. The adverse media focus on the hybrid court structure recommended by the Task Force has deflected public attention away from all other recommendations.
The Task Force recommendation of hybrid courts follows its observation that there is a near total lack of confidence in the Tamil polity and in victims of human rights violations in the impartiality of the Sri Lankan judicial system where it concerns the security forces. There are several cases where the defendants who were members of the security forces have been acquitted by the courts. The most recent example is the case of assassinated Jaffna parliamentarian Raviraj. The security forces are today routinely described as war heroes by government and opposition leaders for having won the war. The issue is whether the judicial system can ignore the factor of ethnicity unless state institutions, including the judicial system, are reformed to ensure justice in the context of a multi ethnic and multi religious society.
The challenge for the government will be to take the recommendations of the Task Force and implement them in a manner that is politically viable. The government’s hold on power is stable so long as the two main coalition partners, the UNP and SLFP, are in agreement. The difficulty that the government seems to be having is that it needs to persuade the SLFP component of the government, which is now headed by President Sirisena, to go along with politically controversial decisions that are taken in regard to inter-ethnic relations. Where constitutional reform is concerned, the SLFP has already stated its position in a conservative manner. They have said that they will not go beyond the unitary state and are not in favour of ratifying constitutional change through a referendum which reduces the scope for reform. The government’s continual postponement of local government elections over the past two years is an indication of its reluctance to face the electorate at this time.
On the other hand, any failure on the part of the government to deliver on its promises can also be politically costly to it in the longer term. The government has to be cognizant that its candidate won the presidential election in January 2015 due to the wholehearted support given to it by the ethnic minority political parties and voters. The support of the ethnic minority parties can also be important in those instances where the two major political parties are in opposition to one another. At the present time, these two parties, the UNP and SLFP, are in coalition so the importance of the ethnic minority parties in order to secure a majority in parliament is not there. However, this situation could change in the future. The ethnic minority vote also becomes very important during a presidential election, when the entire country votes as a single electorate, and every vote counts as witnessed at the presidential election of 2015.
The failure of the government to deliver on its promises can also be costly in terms of international support. The government is on the verge of obtaining the GSP Plus tariff concessions from the EU which it lost six years ago. It is reported that 50,000 jobs in the apparel industry alone were lost as a result. The finance minister has said that regaining the tariff concession will mean an additional income of Rs 2 billion to the country. While the European Commission, which is the administrative arm of the EU, has recommended the restoration of the GSP privilege, this has to be ratified by the EU parliament, which is a political body. If the EU finds that the government view on the implementation of the Task Force report corresponds to the critical views that have emerged from within the government so far, it can lead to a political decision being made in Brussels that will be adverse to the grant of the tariff concession.
In this context there are two campaigns that the government has to speedily embark upon. The first is to persuade the international community that the government’s dominance over the polity is by no means an assured fact. The government needs to constantly take the majority of people with it, especially with regard to measures that are controversial and arouse deep seated emotions. This is no easy task when nationalist forces are waiting in the wings for a takeover. The second campaign for the government to undertake would be with the general population, to persuade them that the recommendations of the Consultation Task Force on reconciliation mechanisms are in accordance with the government’s commitments to the international community. The government needs to convince the people that these commitments are in the best interests of the country. This may not be as difficult as it seems, because most people do want justice and reconciliation to be the heritage of all.