By Jehan Perera –
In a matter of three to four months the government will be facing scrutiny at the UN Human Rights Council which will be scrutinizing the four year report of the Sri Lankan government for the period 2008-12 in terms of the UN’s Universal Periodic Review. This will be followed by the UN Human Rights Council meeting of March 2013 at which the government will be scrutinized on account of its implementation of the LLRC report. This will be followed by the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo later in the year that some Commonwealth heads are contemplating a boycott of if the Sri Lankan government does not improve its human rights performance. Unlike in the recent past, the government appears to be taking the challenge of the international human rights community seriously this time.
Unfortunately, the accountability situation in the country in practice remains stagnant with few signs of improving where political favourites of the government are concerned. The media reports that the ruling party has decided to restore the chairmanship of a local government authority in the President’s home turf to a politician who is currently remanded for murder is a harsh reminder of how the exigencies of politics trump principles of accountability. However, at the level of principle, the government’s response to concerns expressed by the international community in regard to the post-war handling of human rights and accountability issues has taken the form of the presentation of important action plans that will need to be implemented. These are the National Action Plan on Human Rights, the National Action Plan on implementation of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and the National Social Integration Policy Framework.
The three plans that have been prepared in a professional manner by experts who have a depth of knowledge of matters in the fields they have dealt with bodes well for international acceptability which the government may feel is the need of the present period. There are two more important plans that the government is preparing to launch. These are the National Reconciliation Policy Framework and the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Amendments. Some of these plans have already received international expressions of support. The LLRC action plan has been welcomed by the US government. The National Social Integration Policy Framework has received technical support from the German government. The latest indications are that the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Amendments is going to receive international support. The government appears to have made use of the visit of a high powered South African delegation to impress upon them the significance of the PSC and to canvass international support and to get the opposition parties to join it.
Since the conclusion of the war, the Sri Lankan government today has taken the position that a solution to the ethnic conflict can only be provided through a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) and has urged the main Tamil party, Tamil national Alliance (TNA) to join the process. Previously the government had been placing its reliance on the All Party Representatives Conference (APRC) which functioned from 2007-09 and met over one hundred times. The extraordinary effort put in by this Committee led to a final report that was submitted to the President, but has subsequently been suppressed. The fact that most of the deliberations of the Committee took place during the period of the war, when the LTTE was in existence with a hardline bargaining position, was seen as tilting the recommendations of the APRC in favour of too much power sharing to accommodate the LTTE.
However, with the complete elimination of the LTTE, the bargaining strengths of the government and other parties have changed dramatically. Accommodations that were once thought necessary are no longer deemed to be necessary. At the present time the government is overwhelmingly powerful in relation to the opposition parties in terms of political power and it has no military threat to consider unlike in the past. Another concern of the government will be the need to obtain the participation and approval of the Sinhalese nationalist parties. In the present context of heightened Sinhalese nationalism after the war, these nationalist parties can do considerable political damage to the government if they choose to attack it for making too many concessions to the ethnic minorities who are seen as threats by them.
A shortcoming of the APRC report, which is the predecessor of the proposed PSC, was that it was finally formulated without the participation of the major opposition parties, including the largest mainstream opposition party, the UNP, and the largest Tamil party, the TNA, as well as the Sinhalese nationalist JVP. The government’s current position is that it is essential to find a solution that can satisfy all parties to the conflict and therefore, the TNA should put forward its request to the parliamentary select committee instead of making statements locally and internationally. The government has also stated that its roadmap is to have discussion at the PSC with a 6 month time frame and have decisions on constitutional reform approved in Parliament with a two-third majority.
After the end of the war there has been considerable pressure from the international community for a political solution that will address the roots of the ethnic conflict. In particular the Western countries are finding the constant agitation of the Tamil Diaspora and influx of boat people from Sri Lanka to be destabilising political factors that they could do without. Due to these continuing problems the international community has not been prepared to accept the government’s argument that the end of the war has spelled the end of terrorism and also the end of the political problem of devolution of power. While the government has not closed the door to political reform, it has preferred to focus on promoting economic development as the solution to ethnic discontents which it claims are the results of war rather than its cause.
Following the end of the war the government has also been firm that if political reforms are to take place, they will only take place through the vehicle of the Parliamentary Select Committee. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has often stated that he is prepared to accept a solution that Parliament is agreed upon. This indicates that the President is unwilling to go out on a limb and give leadership to a political reform process that is bound to be controversial. He will be mindful of the fate of previous leaders who tried to give leadership to a political solution to the ethnic conflict. They have been assassinated or have had their proposals rejected even by those within their own governments, not to mention the opposition which has burned reform proposals within Parliament. On the positive side, however, the President has committed himself to going along with any accommodation that Parliament is prepared to make.
The international community now appears to have come around to the view that the Parliamentary Select Committee needs to be set up. This is because they can see no other way in which to get the government and TNA to talk to each other. In the absence of such meetings and talks, there is a visible deterioration in inter-ethnic political relations which is damaging to the country’s long term interests in stability and economic prosperity. Some time ago, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe made an effort to broker an agreement between the government and TNA that would have brought the TNA into an agreement to join the Parliamentary Select Committee. While that well meaning effort failed, the international community may succeed due to its greater ability to tip off very adverse consequences that can flow of out of failure to deliver on political reform.