Sri Lanka Perspectives: February 2017
by R Hariharan on 06 Mar 2017 0 Comment

Limelight again on Sri Lanka in UNHRC session


Sri Lanka is once again under stress as the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) commences in Geneva in March 2017, when the Human Rights Commissioner will present his report on Sri Lanka’s follow up actions to meet the requirements of the UNHRC resolution of October 2015.  Sri Lanka had agreed to fulfill within two years the requirements of accountability on alleged war crimes and human rights abuses, creating institutions for transitional justice and carry out security sector reforms.


Sri Lanka is expected to seek extension of time as it has not been able to complete action on some of the key requirements, it. The TNA leader P Sampanthan had expressed unhappiness with the government performance on the subject in parliament, but is unlikely to oppose the government move. 


Pro-LTTE sections of the Tamil Diaspora have been trying to raise international support to oppose giving any extension of time to Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. However, this demand is unlikely to find much traction among international civil society organizations. The Human Rights Watch (HRW), which had been highly critical of Sri Lanka’s human rights record during President Rajapaksa’s rule, has commended the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government for the actions it had taken including ending the culture of surveillance, lifting media restrictions and reviewing all cases of those detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and amending the constitution to ensure free functioning of national institutions.


However, HRW Asia Director Brad Adams in a statement has highlighted Sri Lanka’s failure in security sector reforms as required by the October 2015 resolution. He has drawn attention to a recent report of the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and inhuman treatment which had brought the focus on Sri Lanka’s ongoing “culture of torture” and failure to  abolish the draconian PTA, though the country’s war  with LTTE ended in 2009. He said police have continued to arrest and detain people arbitrarily. In his view, Sri Lanka leaders appeared “to be backtracking on key human rights issues including reforming the police” and it was crucial the HRC considered “closely” whether Sri Lanka made progress in commitments on transitional justice including security reforms. The UN body will also be considering the report of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues on Sri Lanka.


As the HRW Asia director has pointed out, Sri Lanka had been dragging its feet on core issues of accountability like the creation of various institutions for transitional justice, particularly the mechanism for war crimes which has been hanging fire over the issue of participation of foreign judges. The legislation on the creation of the Office of Missing Persons was passed in August 2016 but it is yet to fulfill its obligations to those affected.


Nothing substantial has happened on a truth commission and reparations issues. President Maithripala Sirisena has been cautious in handling the touchy aspects of war crimes issue to fend off former president Rajapaksa who continues to whip up rightwing Sinhala sentiments to help his political comeback. As a result, in spite of its professed good intent, the government has made only slow progress. These issues are likely to figure at the UNHRC session during the discussion on the Human Rights Commissioner’s report.


Sri Lanka foreign affairs minister Mangala Samaraweera in his address to the UNHRC session is likely to explain the reconciliation efforts undertaken by the government so far and appeal for more time to fulfill its commitments made to the Council in 2015. Sri Lanka’s request is likely to be favourably considered as the UN Secretary General Antonio Guteras and the U.S., China, Japan, Australia etc have appreciated Sri Lanka’s reconciliation efforts.  Even the UK, unlike in the past when it had been critical of the reconciliation efforts, is likely to support Sri Lanka after highlighting the unfulfilled commitments.


India’s preoccupation with Sri Lanka under the new dispensation now relates to bonding with the island neighbour on two vital aspects – finalising the economic and technology cooperation agreement (ETCA) still in limbo and firming up closer defence and security cooperation. China had been laying siege on Indian space in Sri Lanka on both the issues. So India’s interest in Sri Lanka Tamils probably relates to rehabilitation efforts and devolution and equity for Tamils in the new constitution being finalised.


With the constitutional polemics figuring prominently, it is not surprising the issue came up when Indian foreign secretary S Jaishankar met with the TNA leaders. He is reported to have told them he would take up the issue with the President and Prime Minister. However, it was probably a moment of truth for a section of the TNA agitating for the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces when he told them that India would not press Sri Lanka on the issue. He advised them to use the opportunities offered with the change of regime to secure the rights of Tamils. Given this backdrop, India is likely to support Sri Lanka’s request for extension of time as the major Tamil Nadu regional parties with their internal preoccupations have been muted on the subject.


Follow up on LTTE plot to kill Tamil MP


The arrest of five rehabilitated former LTTE cadres reported in January 2017 for allegedly plotting to assassinate MA Sumanthiran, moderate Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Member of Parliament, and recovery of claymore mines and ganja from their homes had triggered a lot of speculations about possible revival of the Tamil tigers’ activity in the island nation.  However, police have preferred to charge them only for possession of narcotics (ganja) and explosives and not under the PTA, when they were produced in the court.


There are three possible explanations for this: lack of clinching evidence except for uncorroborated or shaky confessional statement; government not wanting to apply the PTA particularly as the UNHRC is scheduled to meet in Geneva in March 2017; or as columnist DBS Jeyaraj states, the government was not wanting to apply the PTA till it is revised to be less draconian (as required by the 2005 resolution). Probably, all three reasons are valid.


However, till the LTTE overseas elements holed up among the Tamil Diaspora community continue to stoke the embers of LTTE’s Eelam struggle in Sri Lanka, the government has no other option but to keep a wary eye on any suspicious separatist activity.



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