Sri Lanka Perspectives: February 2019
by R Hariharan on 13 Mar 2019 0 Comment

Getting ready for the UNHRC session


President Maithripala Sirisena is reported to be seriously examining the implications of withdrawing from the US-backed UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution Sri Lanka had co-sponsored in September 2015. By co-sponsoring the resolution, Sri Lanka was committed to set up a tribunal with international participation to investigate allegations of war crimes committed by the army as part of its accountability for human rights aberrations during the Eelam War.


The President’s rethink on the resolution comes on the eve of the 40th annual session of the UNHRC (Geneva, February 22 to March 25). It will be taking up the review on Sri Lanka on March 20 when the core group consisting of the UK, Canada, Germany, Macedonia and Montenegro is expected to urge the Council’s support for the resolution once again. Though the US is not part of the Core Group as it had quit the Council, it has continued to work with Sri Lanka government on the implementation of the UN resolution.


The Core Group on Sri Lanka is expected to present a resolution on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, making it more a semantic exercise than a substantive value addition. The resolution will buy time as all the four aspects of transitional justice are still not fully implemented.


President Sirisena speaking to the Colombo weekly, The Sunday Times, had said, “I would wish we can withdraw from it. Discussions are now on over this matter.” This reflects President Sirisena’s exasperation in handling the consequences of the UNHRC resolution passed under his watch. He never accepted international involvement in the process to investigate the war crimes allegations as he considered it a domestic issue.


He had always maintained the army never committed any war crimes during the Eelam war.  This is understandable as he had served as defence minister in President Rajapaksa cabinet during the Eelam War. In spite of his reservations, in 2015, President Sirisena, probably for reasons of political and diplomatic expediency, went along with foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera’s suggestion to co-sponsor the diluted US draft resolution.


Moreover, at that point the President probably felt he was beholden to the US and its allies for their open support that had enabled him to defeat President Rajapaksa. He probably also saw sponsoring the resolution would be seen as part of the Yahapalana vision, when he joined hands with the UNP to defeat Rajapaksa’s attempt to stage a come-back in the August 2015 parliamentary election.


In the final draft of the 2015 resolution, the US had agreed to tone down the requirement for foreign participation in the tribunal, by not specifying the exact nature of foreign participation, while retaining it in a domestic mechanism. The revised resolution was passed as it recognized the serious nature of the allegations as well as the failure of Sri Lanka to act upon them as required by earlier UNHRC resolutions.


The final resolution disappointed many Sri Lankan Tamils and Tamil Nadu political parties as they had been demanding only international mechanism. They had justifiably little faith in Sri Lanka’s domestic process, because in the past domestic inquiries into any human rights aberrations were subjected to heavy political interference. In spite of this, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) chief Sampanthan accepted the resolution at that time as he felt only a consensus resolution could make its honest implementation possible. Moreover, the resolution also addressed the main issues of accountability and reconciliation. On foreign participation, he was of the view that involvement of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence counsel, prosecutors and investigators would give the judicial process much greater credibility. 


But much to the dismay of those who wanted to usher in a clean government and voted the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo to power and to the disappointment of the US and the EU who had supported their rise, their government never implemented the UN body’s resolution either in letter or spirit. With President Sirisena breaking away from Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP coalition we can expect the resolution to continue to remain in the half way house, as yet another belied promise.


As the implementation process is connected to good governance, distrust is growing in the political process itself. Growing national solidarity with the demands of the relatives of missing persons, who have been protesting in Kilinochchi continuously for over 700 days, is a testimony to it.


If President Sirisena withdraws Sri Lanka’s sponsorship at the UNHRC, it will only reinforce the long standing belief of among Sri Lankan Tamils that the Sri Lankan government never maintains its promise to deliver equitable justice to minorities. In 2015, India had supported the revised US draft, though on principle India is always opposed to the role of foreign judges in internal conflicts. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had earlier spelled out India’s stand on the issue: “Our position is very clear. We stand for justice and at the same time we are respectful of the Sri Lankan sovereignty issues to the extent the Sri Lankan government is comfortable with the formulation that marries the two.”


As the UNHRC discusses the Core Group’s resolution on Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Modi will be in the thick of general elections. His party BJP is contesting the elections in Tamil Nadu in alliance with AIADMK and two other smaller parties. So India’s stand could be conditioned to some extent on Tamil Nadu political perspectives on Sri Lanka and UNHRC resolution. However, Sri Lanka Tamils have lost much of the political traction they had in the past. So India can be expected to maintain its stand vocalized by PM Modi.


Col R Hariharan, a retired MI officer, served as the head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, South Asia Analysis Group and the International Law and Strategic Analysis Institute, Chennai

Courtesy: South Asia Security Trends, March 2019,

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