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Sri Lanka: It’s Time to Turn Promises Into Action

Sri Lanka: It’s Time to Turn Promises Into Action

The United National Party’s (UNP) recent parliamentary election victory has renewed the mandate for reform in Sri Lanka, although the policy changes that the post-war country still needs are complex and variegated. In order to help ensure that Colombo fully commits to reform, sustained engagement from the United States and other members of the international community is more important than ever.

Politically speaking, the past year in Sri Lanka has been little short of incredible. In January the country held a snap presidential election where two-term authoritarian Mahinda Rajapaksa was surprisingly booted out of office. Then there were months of friction and tension as the newly elected president, Maithripala Sirisena, struggled to push through a bold agenda. And then in August there was a parliamentary election where Rajapaksa ostensibly made a run at the premiership. The former president didn’t become prime minister, but he was elected to parliament. The country’s two main political parties, the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) have now formed a “national government.” UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has become prime minister again. The leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), R. Sampanthan, has become leader of the opposition.

President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are expected to work closely together for the foreseeable future. Sirisena still heads the SLFP and, while there was significant bickering between the SLFP and the UNP over ministerial portfolios and the composition of the cabinet, Sri Lanka’s new cabinet was sworn in on September 4.

On the international front, the United States has recently announced that it will present another resolution on Sri Lanka at the forthcoming session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which begins on September 14 in Geneva. This may sound familiar to some readers, since three United States-led resolutions on Sri Lanka have been passed at the Human Rights Council since 2012. However, this time appears to be different, as U.S. officials have emphasized that this resolution will be in support of the new government.

This is not to say that the forthcoming Human Rights Council resolution won’t go into detail about issues like accountability for wartime abuses and devolution; it very well might.

Two top U.S. diplomats, Nisha Biswal and Tom Malinowski, recently visited Sri Lanka. When asked about the upcoming resolution, Malinowski—Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL)—noted that Washington and others would be looking to the contents of the forthcoming report by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for guidance, which will deal largely with wartime abuses. The long-awaited report, part of a Human Rights Council resolution passed in 2014, will be officially released this month during the Human Rights Council’s 30th session. Malinowski went on to state the following:

“The important thing is there is an opportunity now that did not exist in the past to work on this collaboratively. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy. There are difficult issues. There are many important constituencies within Sri Lanka and around the world that would care about the outcome of this process. But I really do believe based on the progress that has been achieved in just the last few months and the progress that we have achieved in our dialogue with Sri Lanka, we will be able to get there and that it will be an outcome that is supportive of the very difficult and courageous choices that are being made by the people and the government here.”

The most controversial part of recent U.S. statements on Sri Lanka has arguably been Washington’s clear support for Colombo’s domestic accountability mechanism, the details of which have yet to be made public. On this issue, Malinowski had more to say, commenting:

“…the United States and the international community are not going to walk away from this in September, whatever the thrust of the resolution. International support, international involvement will continue because that is also an important way to continue building confidence and trust and that in turn will be good for the government because it will enable the government to have the space and the time it needs to confront these very, very difficult issues in a way that builds the broadest possible support within Sri Lankan society.”

Since Sirisena was elected president, the United States has made it abundantly clear that a warming of ties with Colombo is a priority. The UNP’s win during parliamentary polls has reiterated that desire. However, the Obama administration’s days are numbered and America’s commitment to issues including truth, justice and accountability needs to go beyond January 2017. Within Sri Lanka, pursuing transitional justice through purely domestic means will be quite difficult, though perhaps not nearly as contentious as an international process or even a hybrid (a mix of official domestic and international involvement and jurisdiction).

Yet, the war-wear Tamil community—the group that has clearly suffered the most as a result of the war—has virtually no faith in a domestic process. Squaring this circle won’t ever be easy, and for now it appears that, barring some unforeseen developments in the coming weeks, the international community will give Colombo the time and space to pursue transitional justice as it sees fit.

However, if Washington has decided to unequivocally back the Sri Lankan government on this vital issue, it should take a couple of important steps during the Human Rights Council’s upcoming session. First, it is imperative that the United States make clear that sustained, international engagement with Colombo is paramount. Second, and more importantly, the United States should lead the way again at the Human Rights Council and ensure the passage of a strong resolution on Sri Lanka. At a minimum, a strong resolution would give a detailed account of the international community’s expectations vis-à-vis transitional justice (among other reforms) in Sri Lanka, including witness protection, provisions for technical assistance from international actors (such as U.N. special procedures mandate holders) and extensive community consultations within Sri Lanka. It would also provide clear benchmarks and reporting requirements. Colombo should report back to the Human Rights Council regularly (for at least the next couple of years) and provide detailed accounts of the government’s progress, both in terms of accountability and justice issues and the panoply of other outstanding matters such as anti-corruption efforts, improved governance, demilitarization, the military’s continued occupation of civilian land, and the negotiation of a political solution to the ethnic conflict.

Time will tell whether Washington and others have placed too much hope in Sri Lanka’s new government. Sri Lankan politics has been in a state of flux for most of the past year, and dealing with the country’s violent history simply wasn’t possible during that time. Nevertheless, the time to make genuine progress on complex issues has arrived. Equally important, if Sirisena and company fail to follow through on their promises, would Colombo face any consequences?

Let us hope that’s a question that will never require an answer.


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