By Jehan Perera –
In March this year Sri Lanka will report back to the UN Human Rights Council on its implementation of Resolution No 30/1 which it co-sponsored in October 2015. This is not going to be an easy session for the country as there is a considerable amount of international dissatisfaction with the slow pace of progress. This report back will be important as it will determine whether or not international scrutiny of the country on human rights issues will continue or come to an end. However, during the past three and a half years the government has implemented several of the commitments it made in terms of the resolution it co-sponsored. These include establishing an office of missing persons, legalizing the international conventions against torture and enforced disappearances and returning military occupied land to the civilian population.
The most damaging propaganda against the government is that it committed the country to make unacceptable compromises to national sovereignty. By co-sponsoring the UNHRC resolution the government gave the international community the opportunity to formally scrutinize the government’s implementation of its commitments. Some of these commitments, such as to set up a judicial mechanism with the participation of international judges and investigators to ensure accountability in war crimes cases have been especially controversial. Subsequently both the president and prime minister have been compelled to make repeated public announcements that they will not permit such an international presence.
Any decision on the part of the UNHRC to accept the final report of the Sri Lankan government and close the chapter on the resolution will be a significant political achievement for the government. With crucial elections around the corner it will be able to show the electorate that its strategy of co-sponsoring the resolution has not been damaging to the country’s national interests or sovereignty. What it has implemented so far has not been overly controversial in the country. What it has not implemented are the controversial parts of the resolution. As a result, one of the opposition’s main weapons against the government would be denied to it.
So far the international community has shown flexibility towards the government. In March 2017 at the request of the Sri Lankan government the UNHRC adopted Resolution 34/1 that extended for a further two years the monitoring mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with a request for a comprehensive report in March 2019. It is likely that the next session of the UNHRC will give rise to criticisms that Sri Lanka has still to make sufficient progress in implementing its commitments. An international lobby group, the International Campaign for Peace and Justice noted in March 2018 that out of 25 major commitments, the government had made little or no progress on 17 of them.
Considerable tracts of land still remain to be released. Prisoners held without trial and under the Prevention of Terrorism Act still continue to remain incarcerated. The PTA itself has not been replaced as promised to meet with international standards. Only one of the four reconciliation mechanisms, the office of missing persons, has been established while three others remain to be set up. The government has also to deliver on its promises to hold accountable those accused of human rights violations and crimes outside of the battlefields, such as journalists, and take them before the law.
Adding to this list of things to be done, is the limited progress made by the government in implementing constitutional reform. Although the government took much efforts to appoint a constitutional committee consisting of all parliamentarians and set up various sub-committees, it appears that the process of constitutional reform has got stuck. The government has yet to formally state its own stance on the controversial issues of devolution of power, the nature of the state and the place of Buddhism. Instead there is a draft constitutional document which appears to have no political party claiming ownership.
With presidential elections to be held before the end of the year, and the possibility of provincial elections before it, it seems unlikely that the government would be able to speed up the constitutional reform process. The government has pledged to place a draft constitution before parliament by February 4, which is Independence Day, but there is a question whether the government will wish to take ownership of this product and seek to push it through parliament and a referendum. This seems unlikely with the government itself divided on the issue and with the president not cooperating with the government.
Indeed, the government’s future is by no means assured. At the local government elections held a year ago the government parties suffered a resounding setback. The clash between the president and the government has done nothing to improve the situation on the ground for the government. In this context any significant implementation of UN Resolution No 30/1 of October 2015 is unlikely by March deadline that the government is expected to report against. With the opposition denouncing the government’s co-sponsoring of the resolution right from the beginning and denouncing it as a betrayal of the country, its implementation will become even less likely in the event of a change of government.
The commitments made in October 2015 are difficult ones for any government, but they are necessary if there is to be justice in terms of dealing with the past and in creating a better future for all in the country. For the past three and half years, the strategy of the international community has been to encourage the government to implement the commitments it made in terms of UNHRC resolution 30/1. The extension of the resolution by a further time period will enable the international community to keep the issue of the resolution on the table while giving whatever government is in power the time and space in which to implement those commitments.