By Suren Surendiran –
“Don’t judge us by the broken promises, experiences and U-turns of the past…. My plea to you Ladies and Gentlemen, is trust us and join us to work together and create the momentum required to move forward and take progressive, meaningful and transformative steps to create a new Sri Lanka.” – Yet another remarkable speech by the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in September 2015 and speech that all it was, it seems.
Barely four months since that speech and Government of Sri Lanka internationally committing by co-sponsoring Resolution A/HRC/30/L.29 in Geneva, the U-turn came in spectacular fashion from the highest authority in the country, the President himself. The President had said foreign judges and prosecutors should not be involved in an investigation into allegations of war crimes to the BBC Sinhala Service on 21 January 2015.
As if there wasn’t enough trust deficit between communities in Sri Lanka, this major let down, haemorrhaged the trust of Tamils in the new President and in his new coalition government.
Tamils were seeking an international independent investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both sides to the armed conflict that ended in May 2009.
The High Commissioner of the UNHRC said in September 2015, “The levels of mistrust in State authorities and institutions by broad segments of Sri Lankan society should not be underestimated. It is for this reason that the establishment of a hybrid special court, integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators, is so essential. A purely domestic court procedure will have no chance of overcoming widespread and justifiable suspicions fuelled by decades of violations, malpractice and broken promises.”
Item 93 of President Sirisena’s manifesto in January 2015 expressed the intention of the common candidate, if elected, to address issues of accountability through national independent judicial mechanisms.
Through a series of negotiations between the Core Group of Members at the UNHRC, Government of Sri Lanka and Representatives of Tamils a collectively agreed text of the resolution which was widely commented as a watered down, stated: “…affirms that a credible justice process should include independent judicial and prosecutorial institutions led by individuals known for their integrity and impartiality; and also affirms in this regard the importance of participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the special counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators”
As the Tamils negotiated down from their original position and by co-sponsoring the resolution the President and his government committed to all its conditions as stipulated, it will be inconceivable that the High Commissioner, The Core Group of Nations at the UNHRC and the rest of the members won’t publicly state in artful phrases that the text of the resolution is not for re-negotiation.
The lack of political will and courage demonstrated by the Sinhala leaders including the President and the Prime Minister to engage in discourse among the Sinhala people for the need to establish the truth of what happened and the importance of accountability for the wrongs that were done against another community of their own citizens is the main reason for this fickleness.
Expectations were set high especially within the minority communities and the Sinhalese when President Maithripala Sirisena was elected as President and the new coalition government won the general election in August 2015.
The majority community was led to believe that the new administration will be pristine clean without corruption, manage the economy with the best interest of the entire people in heart, charges will be brought against the corrupt politicians and civil servants of the previous regime, international relations will improve and in turn will bring investments and tourists will pour in from around the world which will result in better life for all and the future generations. Local human rights activists also believed the new government will investigate the Weliweriya shooting and prosecute the perpetrators of that crime.
The Muslims are still waiting for an independent investigation into the Aluthgama incident to establish who instigated that riots which resulted in massive collateral damage and brought the community relationship to rock bottom.
Tamils of North and East voted overwhelmingly to the President and almost made the biggest difference to bring him to power hoping, that the new government will publicly announce of zero tolerance of sexual violence and torture, particularly by the police and military and proactively investigate and prosecute any such allegations without denying, which had been the Rajapaksa attitude. Tamils believed that the occupied lands will all be released to lawful owners within months, resettlement of internally displaced people would be prioritised, political prisoners will be released or will be charged in a court of law, the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) will be repealed forthwith, government will give the war affected provinces a special priority status and create and facilitate investment opportunities to regenerate the areas to be economically at par with the rest of Sri Lanka.
The record over the past eighteen months is reflected in the disappointment and despair that these communities feel at present.
Blaming and making the Rajapaksa Demon as the main reason for the lack of progress in all or some of these concerns is by and large a false pretence. The joint opposition is now less than 50 in a 225 Members Parliament. In reality the joint opposition haven’t demonstrated in any significant manner as a threat in any form to the current regime, so far.
With such trust deficit within and between communities any conciliatory and complimentary commentary even compared to the times of Rajapaksa, that may be expected from the oral update from the High Commissioner on 29 June will be a drag.
*Suren Surendiran is the Director of Strategic Initiatives and Spokesperson of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF).