By Jehan Perera –
In the run up to local government elections, the Joint Opposition has called for the withdrawal of Sri Lanka from the commitments it made to the UN Human Rights Council in 2015 in Geneva. On that occasion it co-signed a resolution on post-war reconciliation to which it had contributed and which was approved unanimously by the Council. This opposition demand has also come at a time when Sri Lanka has demonstrated its positive relationship with the international community on two occasions this month before the United Nations. The first was the Universal Periodic Review of the UN system in Geneva, where the government’s report on its adherence to human rights norms was scrutinized in detail by over one hundred countries out of which 88 countries also made their specific observations. The government delegation was led by Dr Harsha de Silva, deputy minister of national policies and economic affairs. The government delegation included those who had been part of the process of gathering information from a number of sources. These included consultations with civil society which were organized by civil society groups themselves.
The second occasion on which the government addressed the international community was at the special session of the UN Peacebuilding Commission in New York where a select group of countries which are elected to this Commission were present. The UN Peacebuilding Commission is an intergovernmental advisory body that supports peace efforts in various ways in countries emerging from conflict, particularly during the transitional phase. The Commission brings together a range of actors to discuss possible solutions for a country and generates support and resources for peacebuilding processes. It also seeks to ensure continued focus on countries in a post-conflict reconstruction phase with a view to preventing the recurrence of conflicts. The delegation to this forum comprised Foreign Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam, the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka Dr Indrajit Coomaraswamy and Secretary-General of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms Mano Tittawella.
It was evident at both these sessions that Sri Lanka had completely changed its image of being amongst the most troubled nations of the world and had established itself as a success story of post-war development. Those who live in Sri Lanka or whose attention is focused on human rights in the country, will see the complexity of the issues facing the country. They may even focus their attention on the more problematic issues, such as the communal violence in Gintota and the reported torture of those deemed to be LTTE suspects that have allegedly continued to the present day. But it was evident at the UN discussions that the international community would generally focus more on the broader picture and not on the details.
The reason for Sri Lanka’s success with the international community has been three fold. First is that the government has accepted the broad contours of internationally accepted best practices including the UN framework for peacebuilding and transitional justice. Accordingly, it has opened the doors to UN rapporteurs to visit the country and submit their often critical reports. It has also invited international experts in human rights to join with their Sri Lankan counterparts and prepare action plans on achieving the ideals for which the UN system is expected to stand. The second is that the present government sends to international forums those who will not follow a confrontational approach, and engage in wars of words, and instead skillfully practice their diplomatic arts. Indeed, at the UN Peacebuilding Commission discussion, the representative from Japan praised the Sri Lankan delegation in New York as a “dream team.” This was not in the sense of living in a world of dreams, but as the best possible team a country could hope for.
The third reason is also significant. It is that Sri Lanka presently has a government of national unity comprising the two main political parties and which has the backing of the main ethnic minority parties. This factor alone gives the government a great credibility when it talks in terms of reconciliation and power-sharing as this has necessarily to happen first within the government itself if it is to carry on. It is notable that at the meeting of the UN Peacebuilding Commission, not only did the Western countries indicate their support for Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process. In addition the representatives of China, Colombia, Egypt, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya in addition to those from the EU, Japan, Norway, Belgium and USA made interventions to express support for Sri Lanka and appreciation for sharing its experiences with the Peacebuilding Commission, which would prove useful for other countries to learn from as well.
The government is often criticized within the country and internationally for going too slowly in its reconciliation process as well as in everything else. However, in an indication that dealing with the past, and its human rights violations and misgovernance is never easy, the representative from Colombia which is widely regarded as the latest success story in post-conflict reconciliation, with its president winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, stated that in some areas the Colombian peace process was going even slower than Sri Lanka’s. He reiterated that there was much they could learn from Sri Lanka’s experience.
Despite its middle income status Sri Lanka remains a relatively poor country with an under resourced economy, burdened by three decades of war and further run down by the financial profligacy and corruptions of the past. Therefore its hopes for a speedy transformation require the support of the international community that would enable the country to catch up for the lost decades of development. This support will initially need to come from foreign governments rather than from the commercial sector. This is because the current labour and property legal framework, wage structures and physical infrastructure in the country are not attractive to foreign private investment. However, by projecting itself as a possible model of post-war reconciliation and reconstruction, Sri Lanka can hope to obtain international support for its economic development plans which would come from governments and multilateral aid agencies.
In this context it is unfortunate that the Joint Opposition has announced that it will seek Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from the commitments of the UNHRC resolution that the present government made in 2015. It has also said that the price of its cooperation with the SLFP headed by President Maithripala Sirisena at the forthcoming local government elections is the withdrawal of the SLFP from the government and its break up. Such a sequence of steps, if undertaken, could spell the end of Sri Lanka’s positive relationship with the international community. It was the new government’s decision to agree to the 2015 resolution in Geneva that led to the turnaround in Sri Lanka’s relationship with the international community. In addition, the Joint Opposition announcement shows how much the Sri Lanka’s policy on human rights and peacebuilding is dependent on the present government remaining in power.
The Joint Opposition’s threat to the UN mandated human rights and peacebuilding process has become more immediate due to the forthcoming local government elections. The dilemma for the SLFP component of the government that is headed by President Sirisena is that if the SLFP goes into these elections divided between themselves and the SLFP component in the Joint Opposition that is headed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, they are both unlikely to fare well as the SLFP vote will be divided. This explains the high level negotiations currently underway between the two components to reunify for the purpose of contesting the local government elections together. But the price demanded by the Joint Opposition is very high. It is no less than the breakup of the UNP-SLFP government of national unity which has won international recognition and Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from its international commitments. President Sirisena is reported to be opposed to such an outcome. It is incumbent on the UNP to make its contribution to strengthening the President’s hand to quell the pressures from within his own party in a mutually beneficial manner.