Sri Lanka’s twenty-six-year civil war was a brutal conflict that pitted the Sri Lankan government forces against the Tamil Tigers, a group that fought for a separate state in the country’s northern and eastern provinces. Though the government defeated the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, Sri Lanka’s post-war situation is headed in the wrong direction. Since that time, the international community’s engagement with the island nation has been variegated. Unfortunately, much of the criticism Sri Lanka has received about ‘accountability’ for alleged atrocities committed during the civil war and an end to ongoing human rights abuses on the island has not made the situation any better.
One could also argue that the situation in Sri Lanka would be worse in the absence of outside pressure on the regime, which is led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa heads the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the most powerful political party in the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance, a political alliance that was first formed in 2004. Rajapaksa has been president since 2005.
Is this an authoritarian regime that simply does not care about the court of public opinion? History suggests the reality is more complex. While the regime is fearful of enacting meaningful reforms, it is also reluctant to show absolute intransigence on the international scene. Sri Lanka does have vulnerabilities – particularly related to trade, investment, and economics. Furthermore, the regime craves international legitimacy, including from Western nations that tend to be most vocal about human rights concerns. Yet numerous countries, including the United States, have chosen not to push Sri Lanka too hard in spite of rhetoric suggesting otherwise.
Notable examples of the Rajapaksa regime’s attempts to deflect international criticism include the regime’s lifting of the Emergency Regulations (2011), the creation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) (2010), the government’s release of the LLRC final report in its entirety (2011), and the holding of the Northern Provincial Council elections (2013).
Nevertheless, these actions did nothing to stop the regime’s relentless consolidation of power, its intimidation of the press, the judiciary, and independent NGOs, its tacit support for growing extremist nationalist elements amongst the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, and the perpetuation of impunity throughout the country. Consider the Emergency Regulations, for example. Despite their lifting, the government still maintains broad powers to search, arrest and detain people through the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a piece of legislation that is wholly incompatible with democratic governance. The LLRC, purported to be Sri Lanka’s homegrown accountability mechanism, is a presidentially-appointed commission of inquiry that was created in the wake of widespread concerns about violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, which allegedly occurred during the end of the civil war. While it deserves notice that the LLRC completed its work, the Commission’s final report does not even begin to address well-founded concerns surrounding alleged wartime atrocities committed by Sri Lankan government forces and the need for accountability – an essential part of any comprehensive plan to promote peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
Another instance of Sri Lanka’s faint-hearted international appeasement efforts includes the crafting of false narratives surrounding the implementation of the actionable LLRC recommendations. These are wide-ranging reforms, which, if properly implemented by the government, would make Sri Lanka less authoritarian and promote a just, lasting peace. Even the most essential LLRC recommendations – pertaining to governance, demilitarization, reconciliation, land, and human rights – have been largely ignored by the regime. Additionally, the Northern Provincial Council elections last September resulted in a resounding victory for the opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA). This remains the only provincial council not controlled by the United People’s Freedom Alliance. However, nearly all the power remains with the governor of the northern province, a former major general and presidential appointee. More generally, the regime still shows virtually no interest in negotiating a reasonable power-sharing arrangement with the TNA.
After the passage of three U.N. Human Rights Council resolutions – intended to promote reconciliation, human rights and accountability – and the commencement of an investigation into wartime atrocities by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the regime has again turned to cosmetic changes with the hopes of assuaging the concerns of international observers.
Recently, Sri Lanka announced it is expanding the mandate of its Presidential Commission to Investigate into Complaints Regarding Mission Persons, and will include five international experts to help with the country’s own war crimes inquiry. The commission – already arguably another disingenuous attempt to appease international observers – was originally designed to look into disappearances of people residing in the northern and eastern provinces, which occurred from 1990 to 2009. Now, the period under examination will go from 1983 to 2009. In what is a significant move, the commission’s mandate also includes violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The commission has now been given until February 2015 to complete its work. This may sound like a positive step, but there are several reasons for concern with this development.
As others have previously emphasized, the commission itself is already overwhelmed. Indeed, about 20,000 complaints have been made, but only around 1,000 have actually been heard.
There is no question that broadening the mandate creates all kinds of problems. For starters, how can a body that was already hopelessly behind schedule be expected to finish its work in a timely fashion when more duties are being piled on?
Furthermore, the regime has not picked these experts at random. Indeed the past record of the three experts, which were appointed initially, suggests that these individuals will interpret and apply the law in a manner, which (at the very least) helps to defend the regime from war crimes allegations. While regime supporters may claim the more recent appointment of an Indian human rights activist and a lawyer from Pakistan gives the five-member group more balance, the independence and impartiality of this commission remains highly questionable.
It is true that bilateral relations between any two countries are about much more than human rights. Nonetheless, foreign direct investment, visa and travel bans for senior government officials, the possibility of trade and economic sanctions, and a more serious rethinking of military cooperation and future weapons sales are all things likely to get Rajapaksa’s attention.
Essentially, the broader debate at this juncture should not focus on whether international pressure can force Sri Lanka to change its behavior. At what point do human rights violations and institutionalized impunity in Sri Lanka become so egregious that Western countries lose their patience with Sri Lanka and decide to act more decisively? If there is a tipping point, what might it be?
Sri Lanka has learned that condemnation in multilateral forums like the Human Rights Council can be managed as long as its bilateral ties with key countries do not deteriorate completely. Relatedly, geopolitical concerns in the region mean that Washington and its allies are unlikely to prioritize issues relating to governance or human rights over matters pertaining to security and economics – particularly when it comes to bilateral ties, where it really counts.
So what has happened lately, and what can we expect going forward? For one, the regime lacks the popularity it once had. The results of the recent Uva Provincial Council election (Uva) further underscore this point. Nonetheless, President Rajapaksa is likely to win the next round of presidential elections, which will be held in January 2015. And future parliamentary elections would likely result in a United People’s Freedom Alliance win as well, especially if Rajapaksa were elected to a third term beforehand. That being said, the results from Uva suggest a resurgent United National Party, Sri Lanka’s principal opposition party. The United People’s Freedom Alliance would still be favored to win national level elections early next year, although victory is by no means assured.
As far as international criticism is concerned, the Obama administration has spearheaded all three resolutions at the Human Rights Council. If sustained pressure on Rajapaksa is to move beyond multilateral fora, it looks like Washington would need to take the lead again.
Rajapaksa has had plenty of time to show he is serious about human rights, justice, and accountability. Unfortunately, his administration has consistently done the bare minimum, opted for cosmetic changes and glossed over an increasingly worrisome human rights record – embracing impunity at every turn. If nothing else, the past five years have proven that Sri Lanka’s domestic institutions are still not capable of adhering to acceptable standards of governance, accurately accounting for the past or punishing perpetrators for their crimes.
For any long-term strategy to promote human rights, organic change and local solutions will be paramount. However, other countries can still help. That being said, lukewarm diplomacy and an agenda that puts human rights on the back burner of policy concerns is short-sighted, unhelpful, and a disservice to those living on the island who are trying so hard and risking so much to make it a more democratic place – not just with their words, but, more importantly, with their actions too.
Taylor Dibbert is an international consultant based in Washington, D.C. and the author of the book Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.
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