Developments and the Way Forward in Sri Lanka

Recociliation peace and warBy Senator Patrick Leahy.                                            I want to speak briefly about recent developments in Sri Lanka where the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena has taken several important and encouraging steps to promote good governance, human rights and reconciliation since his election on January 8th.

Among the government’s initial accomplishments are the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which curtails the extensive powers enjoyed by the executive and vests more power in the parliament, limits the presidential term to five years instead of six, allows the president to hold office only for two terms instead of an unlimited number of terms, and provides for a Constitutional Council to make appointments to independent commissions on the judiciary, police, public service, elections, and audit, instead of the president as was previously the case.  In addition, the right to information has been included as a fundamental right in the Constitution.

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has wisely called the attention of the parliament to the need to review the individuals and entities that were listed under a UN regulation pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1373, adopted shortly after the 9/11 attacks.  The regulation was used to ban several Tamil diaspora groups for their alleged links to the LTTE.  However, the new government reportedly believes that some individuals and organizations may have been wrongly accused of terrorist links when they were merely advocating in support of their rights.  The government intends to review the list in the interest of reconciliation and reaffirming its commitment to freedom of expression.

I am also encouraged that the government has revived its relationship with the United Nations, including with the UN Human Rights Council, and has invited the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Sri Lanka.  I hope such a visit takes place soon.

The Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence visited Sri Lanka in March-April 2015, and I understand that the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances will visit Sri Lanka in August.

For years, impunity for serious crimes has been the norm in Sri Lanka.  The government is working to establish what it describes as a “domestic mechanism” to deal with accountability for human rights violations.  A purely domestic mechanism, however, is not likely to be sufficient.  The Sri Lankan people, the United States and other governments, the United Nations, and international human rights groups have long called for justice for the victims of atrocities committed by the armed forces and the LTTE during the 30 year conflict.  It is essential that the justice process is not only about truth telling, but is a credible, independent mechanism with authority to investigate, prosecute, and appropriately punish those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, on both sides.

It is also important to the development of a credible accountability mechanism and to the success of this endeavor that Sri Lankan officials consult with local civil society organizations, including the families of the war’s victims.  They should also invite international bodies, such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to take part in this process, to provide technical assistance as well as substantive input and help with prosecutorial work, evidence-gathering, and judicial decision-making.  A hybrid mechanism, with international experts involved at the prosecutorial and judicial level, will help ensure that the failings and cynicism associated with past domestic accountability mechanisms are not repeated.

I am told that the government intends to work with humanitarian organizations on the issue of missing persons, including forensics, and to resolve the cases of remaining detainees.  The United States and other international groups could assist this important humanitarian effort.

Under the government of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Armed Forces day was “Victory Day”, a divisive, provocative celebration for the Sinhalese majority.  President Sirisena, in his Armed Forces Day speech on May 19, said the policy of the new government will be “development and reconciliation”, making clear the government’s recognition that development projects alone will not heal the wounds and scars of the past.  He also affirmed that the reconciliation process must involve truth seeking, justice, eliminating fear and suspicion among all communities and building trust among them, as well as the rebuilding of infrastructure.  He expressed confidence that the armed forces would now dedicate themselves to the government’s policy on reconciliation.

The return of land in the north and east currently occupied by the armed forces, and the resettlement of Tamils displaced by the war and the provision of basic services, is an urgent necessity.  Some land in the east that had been allocated by the previous government for infrastructure projects has been released by President Sirisena for the resettlement of the displaced, and a small amount of land in the north has been provided to civilians who were uprooted by the war.  But this is only a beginning.  Sri Lanka is at peace, so it is time for the armed forces to return land, support the resettlement of families, and focus on external threats rather than domestic policing.

Unlike the previous government which vilified its critics and locked up after sham trials journalists who exposed corruption, President Sirisena has taken steps to reaffirm freedom of the press by unblocking media websites, inviting exiled journalists to return to the country, and ensuring freedom of expression for the media to operate without fear of reprisal.

Under the previous government, Sri Lanka’s judicial system was politicized, manipulated, and corrupted.  The new government is taking steps to reestablish the independence of the judiciary, which is fundamental to any democracy.  Also significant was the appointment of the Chief Justice who is from the minority Tamil community immediately after the election of the new government.

The government has committed to fight corruption and ensure accountability for financial crimes even for the most influential and powerful individuals, to end impunity at any level.  It has established a Stolen Assets Recovery Task Force for this purpose.  The United States is prepared to assist these efforts and those of civil society to combat corruption.

These are very encouraging steps for which we should commend President Sirisena.  They should have been carried out by the previous government, but instead former President Rajapaksa and his brothers Basil and Gotabhaya, and their close associates, sought to dismantle the institutions of democracy, subvert the rule of law, and enrich themselves.  Rather than support reconciliation, they encouraged corruption and exacerbated ethnic, religious, and political divisions.

Of course, these are only first steps, and there have been others that raise questions about the government’s intentions.  For example, Major General Jagath Dias, who was appointed the new Army Chief of Staff, commanded a regiment that took part in the final battles of the war that were marked by widespread abuses including summary executions of prisoners and in which countless civilians died, reportedly from government artillery shelling.  If the Sri Lankan government is serious about addressing the crimes of the past it will need to take up allegations against senior officers like General Diaz.  Failing to address the role of senior military commanders, in particular those who still serve, would seriously weaken the government’s credibility.

Most immediately, the government’s challenge is to hold parliamentary elections as soon as possible.  Once a new parliament is in place the processes of reconciliation, reconstruction, reform, and accountability can proceed apace.

After the elections, President Sirisena’s government will need to work closely with the United Nations on plans to address the legacy of past abuses.  The UN Human Rights Council is expected to take up this issue in its September session in Geneva.  Thus, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights needs to release its report before then, as called for by the UN Human Rights Council, with recommendations for Sri Lanka and the international community on how best to achieve accountability in Sri Lanka.  The government should wait until the UN report is issued before finalizing its own plans.

Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Sri Lanka just four months after President Sirisena’s election was not only symbolic of the revival of relations between our countries, but also illustrative of the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to realign its foreign relations more broadly.  Over the last six years, the Obama Administration has demonstrated leadership within the international community in addressing a range of issues in Sri Lanka.  The Administration’s policy should follow the same trajectory and continue to play a leadership role.

Likewise, the U.S. Congress has long sought to support democracy, development, human rights, and the rule of law in Sri Lanka.  A close friend of mine, the late James W. Spain, one of our most able diplomats, served as our ambassador in Colombo from 1985 to 1988.  He was a devoted friend of Sri Lanka.  I look forward to doing what I can to assist the Secretary and the Sirisena government, on behalf of all the people of Sri Lanka, in the months ahead. (senate.gov)

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