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If reform project neglected, Sri Lanka may return to populist authoritarianism, warns a new report

Image courtesy of Getty Images: Supporters of Sri Lankan opposition presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena chears during the final day election campaign rally on January 5, 2015 in Kalutara, Sri Lanka.

A new report released by Colombo based think tank The Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) concludes that “the government must now reenergise the reform project, openly championing it with the people and ensure that partisan interests from within and outside do not jeopardise it. January 2015 presented an unprecedented opportunity for democratic governance on a number of fronts; to squander it, even by delay and default, will hasten the return to populist authoritarianism.”

The report presents a bleak picture of the government’s human  record and says that ” the government has showed insensitivity and lack of political will to address stark violations of human rights, even when brought before the international community. The concern is that this trend of indifference on the part of the government might continue this year too, possibly impacting the forthcoming March UNHRC session and UPR process.”

The report ” Two Years In Government: A review of the pledges made in 2015 through the lens of constitutional reform, governance and transitional justice”  discuses  political context,. constitutional reform,  anti corruption and related issues,  transitional Justice  in separate chapters.

“Despite some successes, the current public perception is of a slow pace or even stagnation. This in turn has resulted in disillusionment and disappointment, with questions posed about the ability of the National Unity Government to govern effectively. These sentiments are justified in terms of promises made and the inability or unwillingness to manage expectations via a comprehensive communication strategy.” says the report.

Section on the Challenges and Trends  of the Transitional Justice follows.

Transitional Justice:  Challenges and Trends 

Despite the ambitious proposals made in 2015, the government has been extremely slow in the implementation of transitional justice promises. These are briefly discussed below
A)    Prioritisation of Constitutional Reforms over Transitional Justice

One of the main challenges to progress on Transitional Justice is the common sentiment in government circles that Transitional Justice need not be prioritised. Many in government have pushed for the prioritisation of constitutional reforms instead on the basis that such reforms entails a long term solution of the ethnic question as well as strengthen basic human rights. Some believe too that transitional justice would adversely impact the prospects for constitutional reform as opponents of both distort the former as the process through which war heroes would be turned into war criminals. In this respect the accountability mechanism is of particular salience. The inability to deliver on the commitments made in 2015 including the delay in the establishment of the OMP, further feed into the perception of transitional justice not receiving the same status as constitutional reform. The apparent prioritisation will likely have ramification during the election cycles, especially in the North and East, where there is growing dismay with limited progress with transitional justice.

B)    Lack of political will

Despite the legislation on the OMP being enacted in August 2016, there has as yet been no move to gazette the legislation, delaying further the establishment of the OMP and the appointment of commissioners. Similarly, no legislation has yet been introduced for the establishment of the other three mechanisms and there continues to be delays in the implementation of the other commitments such as criminalising disappearances, security sector reforms, further land releases. The delays can be attributed to many factors.

Firstly, Transitional Justice did not significantly feature in the January 2015 nor August 2015 general elections, 124 thus the lack of political will can stem from the fact that Transitional Justice was not part of the mandate for which the people voted. However, the commitments made at the UNHRC in September 2015 (post both elections in 2015) tie the government to a process of Transitional Justice. Secondly, many interviewed by CPA indicated that the internal politics and power struggles within government have resulted in a lack of political will in strengthening Transitional Justice mechanisms. As the honeymoon period of the National Unity Government wanes, the government expends its time and energy on consolidating its power, fending off attacks from the Joint Opposition and maintaining unity within its ranks. Thus, there are not many champions of Transitional Justice in government, with many identifying the Foreign Minister as the lone voice in favour of Transitional Justice. Thirdly, the pushback from nationalist elements within and outside government is another factor. This is clearly demonstrated with the debates around the participation of foreign judges alluded above.

C)    Absence of a strategy

Another challenge is the lack of a clear vision or strategy.126 The plethora of ministries and secretariats appointed to look into matters concerning reconciliation and Transitional Justice is an example of this.127 Moreover, there seems to be no clear roadmap as to the sequencing of mechanisms and linkages amongst them. 128 The confusing situation that has ensued stirs up disillusionment amongst the public and renders the government an easy target for criticism.

D)    Lack of outreach and communication

The lack of political will, has also led to deficiencies in communication on the part of the government. The main criticism regarding the OMP was the lack of consultation by the government with key stakeholders, especially with victims, as well as the insufficient communication to explain what it entails.

Lack of communication can give rise to many problematic consequences. Firstly, the lack of transparency that this creates, causes distrust amongst the victim groups and other stakeholders in civil society. There would also be no sense of ownership, as the mechanisms or solutions put forward will be those decided behind closed doors by a select few with minimum public participation, compounding the perception of an elitist driven process with no resonance with the actual victims.

On the other hand, the lack of communication also results in the government not keeping the public informed about the good work that is being done such as the release of some lands and the enabling of people displaced for decades to return to their homes.

Secondly, the weak communication results in the factions opposing the government, such as the Joint Opposition, setting the agenda and projecting the dominant narrative the current situation. With inadequate and inept communication, the government has ceded agenda-setting and the dominant narrative to the opposition

Thirdly, contradictory statements have been made by different actors in government, as seen with the accountability mechanism. This reflects the lack of cohesion within government and feeds into perceptions of contradictions and incompetence.

E)    Waning international pressure

Added to the lack of political will and lack of a clear vision, is the easing of international pressure. The international community has been lenient with this government and adopted a far more relaxed stance than in the past.

This situation is most likely to continue in the future, especially considering the regime changes in several countries.

Read the full report on line here


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