[A photographer takes aim at the UNHRC]
Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war ended in May 2009, but there are still many concerns regarding accountability for alleged wartime atrocities and persistent tension between the country’s various ethnic groups. Increased authoritarianism from recently ousted President Mahinda Rajapaksa and institutionalized impunity have meant that the country’s wounds of war remain unhealed and that a return to violence in the medium- to long-term is not out of the question.
Mahinda Rajapaksa went for an unprecedented third term in early January, but was defeated by his former health minister and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) general secretary Maithripala Sirisena. Aside from many other SLFP defections, Sirisena was supported by a broad coalition. Rajapaksa’s defeat came as a surprise to many and is a sign that Sri Lankans from all walks of life were tired of a regime plagued by widespread corruption, nepotism and centralization of power. Quite evidently, Sri Lankans prefer a more authentic brand of democracy.
But what about international advocacy efforts vis-à-vis Sri Lanka? How might a change of the guard in Colombo affect things?
Over the past few years, the preponderance of international pressure on Sri Lanka has come through actions taken at the U.N. Human Rights Council, where three resolutions on Sri Lanka have been passed since 2012.
As part of the most recent Human Rights Council resolution (passed in March 2014), the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (O.H.C.H.R.) will deliver a report on alleged wartime atrocities in Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council’s 28th session in March 2015. (The official investigation period is from February 21, 2002 to November 15, 2011.)
Though O.H.C.H.R. investigators were denied permission to enter Sri Lanka to conduct the investigation, the report is expected to be critical of both Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tigers, the separatist group that fought for a separate state in the country’s north and east.
Sirisena has promised bold, sweeping reforms, but certain delays are bound to arise. To add an additional layer of complexity, a parliamentary election is slated for April. While it’s good we witnessed a peaceful transfer of power in early January, a degree of uncertainty will permeate Sri Lankan politics for the next several months.
In addition, Rajapaksa’s defeat will likely reduce international pressure on the
Sri Lankan government in the near-term, especially at the Human Rights Council.
This is unfortunate.
Those Human Rights Council resolutions, designed to promote human rights, justice and accountability in Sri Lanka, remain quite relevant – and yet all three resolutions were largely ignored by the Rajapaksa regime.
Furthermore, while it’s still early, it might be wishful thinking to expect a new government in Colombo to behave all that differently. When put in a broader context, recent actions at the Human Rights Council are another stark reminder that the efficacy of multilateral institutions can be quite limited. That said, keeping Sri Lanka under the microscope of the Human Rights Council is a good idea because failing to do so would run the risk of losing momentum that’s been built up over the past several years. Since that’s the case, a fourth resolution should be passed on Sri Lanka. However, further action at the Human Rights Council is something that should be pursued only if that’s done in conjunction with other bilateral efforts to encourage change.
Indeed, the continued reliance on multilateral institutions, a strategy which proved largely ineffectual when the Rajapaksa regime was in power, may not be the best approach with a new administration either.
The time for thinking more creatively about how to engage with the Sri Lankan government is now long overdue. Whether it’s Rajapaksa, Sirisena or someone else, it’s likely that the recalibration of bilateral ties – in London, Washington, New Delhi and elsewhere – would be the best way forward for international actors concerned about promoting justice, accountability and human rights on the island.
Who could lead the way?
The United States, others in Europe and India all come to mind. India has long had a difficult and complex relationship with its South Asian neighbor and the Modi administration will be keen to rebuild a bilateral relationship that has been troubled over the past few years. Besides, India craves a larger role on the international stage and working to improve the situation in Sri Lanka would give the Modi administration added international credibility and signal that indeed New Delhi knows how to act assertively and constructively in its own backyard.
Or, even better, perhaps India and the United States could work together on Sri Lanka policy. Obama’s recent trip to India revealed that now is an opportune time for deeper collaboration between the two countries.
What should we expect in the coming months?
Strong voices within Washington’s foreign policy community are likely to advocate for a more hands-off, patient approach with Colombo. However, clear messages should be sent to Sirisena and others, not only about adhering to some of the benchmarks outlined during the presidential campaign, but going beyond that to include measures specific to the Tamil community – particularly as it relates to accountability for alleged wartime atrocities, the crafting of a reasonable power-sharing arrangement with the Tamil National Alliance, militarization and land issues.
Some may argue that in the face of so many international crises – ranging from Ebola to the Islamic State – the time to further pressurize Sri Lanka could not have come at a more inopportune moment. Nevertheless, let’s keep in mind that several countries, especially the United States, have already used considerable diplomatic resources to facilitate the passage of three Human Rights Council resolutions on Sri Lanka in as many years. All that happened as the Arab spring turned cold and a multitude of other challenges materialized.
Others may feel that pushing Sri Lanka hard on human rights or accountability isn’t worth the effort. Alternately, geopolitical considerations in the region may loom too large to risk alienating a new government in Colombo.
With a transfer of power in Sri Lanka, a complicated situation has become even more complex and the tension between geopolitics and human rights or justice is not a zero-sum game. However, pursuing strategies that downplay Sri Lanka’s burning need for justice and accountability are misguided. Doing so would further damage the credibility of the Obama administration and its allies, undermine the legitimacy of the Human Rights Council and, most significantly, ensure that a lasting peace on the island remains far from certain.
[Original caption: Getting Real about Rights and Justice in Sri Lanka]
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