Pressuring Sri Lanka

Last Thursday, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution that seemed, once again, to promote postwar reconciliation and express a broad international consensus for ensuring those who committed serious human-rights violations during the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war are held accountable. The problem is the resolution’s overly diplomatic and, at times, vague language still leaves Colombo with the leeway to continue disregarding the demand for accountability and justice.

Last week’s resolution is the fourth such U.S.-led resolution passed by the council since 2012. The previous one, passed in March 2014, resulted in a recently released report that documented appalling atrocities—including extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, sexual violence, attacks on civilians and child conscription—that had allegedly been committed by Sri Lanka’s government forces and the opposing Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers, during the country’s civil war, which ended in 2009. That resolution, as well as the two prior to it, were rejected by the increasingly authoritarian administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The election of President Maithripala Sirisena in January was supposed to change things. For one, the latest resolution has the support of the Sirisena government; Colombo even co-sponsored it.

Under Mr. Sirisena, the space for public dissent in Sri Lanka has opened up, particularly in the largely Sinhala-Buddhist south. Attacks against religious minorities have decreased too. The passage of the 19th amendment to the constitution in April curtailed expansive presidential powers and strengthened the office of the prime minister. An important parliamentary election in August reaffirmed the mandate for democratic reform.

But much remains to be done. For starters, Mr. Sirisena was unable to pass electoral reforms before dissolving Parliament in June. The widespread investigations over corruption—a major problem when Mr. Rajapaksa was in power—have only produced a handful of indictments. Moreover, on the intractable conflict-related issues such as accountability, devolution, demilitarization and the military’s occupation of civilian land, the newly established coalition government has yet to go beyond superficial changes.

This latest resolution is well-intentioned, although a credible transitional justice process remains far from assured. It covers an array of important topics such accountability, reconciliation and human rights in Sri Lanka. It mandates that a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism (for wartime atrocities) include foreign judges, investigators, prosecutors and lawyers, yet the precise level of international involvement, a pre-eminent concern for the war-weary Tamil community, is unclear.

After a number of past commissions failed to hold perpetrators accountable, the vast majority of Tamils—the community that bore the brunt of the 26-year war, understandably have little faith in a domestic accountability process that will be managed by the nation’s Sinhala-dominated state.

Casualty figures remain a hotly debated topic, though estimates suggest that as many as 100,000 perished during the war. A report mandated by the U.N. Secretary General stated that up to 40,000 civilians were killed in the final months alone. Both these figures may be much higher.

Some commentators have asserted that what’s called for in the latest resolution is a “hybrid” accountability mechanism, where domestic and international actors share involvement and jurisdiction. Others, including senior Sri Lankan government officials, believe that the resolution mandates a domestic mechanism with some international involvement.

These distinctions matter because the less official involvement and influence international actors have, the less likely it is that Sri Lanka’s accountability mechanism will be truly impartial and genuinely credible. Colombo, however, isn’t keen on having too much outside influence over its domestic politics.

The international community, particularly the Obama administration, must keep sustained diplomatic pressure on Colombo to ensure needed reforms and the beginning of a meaningful transitional justice process come to fruition. It is incumbent upon the government to show how this process will be truly credible and not susceptible to political pressures.

Clearer benchmarks and more specifics are needed to establish precisely how Sri Lanka will pursue justice, accountability and reconciliation. It’s still not clear that Colombo is even ready to deal with the country’s violent past.

The most logical place to begin would be adding detail to the composition of its judicial mechanism, including the precise number of international participants, the scope of activities they will undertake and, crucially, the level of authority they will wield.

Since a genuine transitional justice process needs to be victim-centered, Colombo must explain how consultations with community members will work. For people who choose to give testimony or provide information, Colombo must describe the processes it will put in place to ensure that these people aren’t putting their lives in danger.

To further prove its sincerity about healing the wounds of war, the government could announce a timetable for meaningful discussions on devolution of power with Tamil political leaders.

Broadly speaking, Obama’s record on human rights has been inconsistent at best, although America’s sustained engagement with and pressure on Sri Lanka since the conclusion of the island-nation’s civil war has been a relative bright spot. Now, with a new and apparently pro-Western government in place in Colombo, Washington is trying to improve bilateral ties without ignoring contentious war-related issues that were at the forefront of U.S.-Sri Lanka relations during Mr. Rajapaksa’s final years in power. This is a tricky balancing act.

What’s urgently needed is a renewed commitment from the international community, especially the U.S., to keep up the pressure. Strong political will from the new government in Colombo is also essential. Unfortunately, we are unlikely to see much of the latter without a good deal of the former. (WSJ)

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