Sri Lanka Perspectives: March 2019
by R Hariharan on 09 Apr 2019 0 Comment

Sri Lanka buys more time at UNHRC


The decision of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to bury their political hatchet, at least temporarily, appears to have helped Sri Lanka to gain two more years to fulfil its commitment made at UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to promote accountability and human rights in 2015. The 40th session of the human rights body unanimously adopted a new resolution 40/L.1 granting Sri Lanka two more years, for a second time.


Sri Lanka co-sponsored the new resolution, just as it did in 2015, as a tactical ploy to avoid a divisive vote in the UN forum and to gain a breather till 2021. However, the resolution is a strong reminder that the international community is not satisfied with the progress made by Sri Lanka to bring transitional justice to the victims of internal conflict, even ten years after the end of the Eelam.


The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s report placed at the 40th session, appreciated Sri Lanka’s commitment to implement Human Rights Council resolution 30/1. But it also said Sri Lanka needed to be more consistent, comprehensive and accelerated.  The High Commissioner noted that there had been minimal progress on accountability and said the continuing impunity risks fuelling communal or ethnic violence and instability. She pointed to the continuing allegations of torture and other human rights violations by security forces, including sexual violence were troublesome. Ms Bechelet called for effective, transparent and independent investigations by the government as well as measures to prevent and end such practices.


Significantly, she also touched upon the political schism within the government hampering the implementation of the Resolution. She said the lack of a common vision among the country’s highest leadership and deadlock on these important issues “has a damaging impact” on victims from all ethnic and religious groups and on society.


She was so true, if we consider the differences between the President and the Prime Minister on the government strategy at the UNHRC session aired in public space before the session. Playing the Sinhala nationalist card, President Sirisena had said he was considering withdrawing Sri Lanka from its commitment to the Resolution, an action former president Mahinda Rajapaksa had wanted. President Sirisena even came up with strange idea of sending a separate delegation to the UNHRC Session, in addition to the official one!


Apparently the President changed his mind after unconfirmed reports indicated the Rajapaksas had decided on fielding former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse as the presidential candidate. On top of it, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), unofficially led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, made it clear that it would not ally with the President’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in the presidential election. It would contest the election on its own with SLPP nominee. So it made sense for President Sirisena to mend fences with Wickremesinghe at least for the time being, to work out his strategy to contest the next presidential election. But since then, the President seems to be having second thoughts.


However, the wording of the unanimously adopted resolution showed that Sri Lanka continues to enjoy international credibility despite the tardy progress it had made so far. In order to retain it, by 2021 Sri Lanka has to complete three requirements which are potential landmines at home. These are: establishing an internationally credible judicial mechanism with a special counsel to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights, instituting credible judicial process to include independent judicial institutions and lastly, evolve a viable reconciliation process.


Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana explained Sri Lanka’s reservations in his speech after the passing of the Resolution 40/L1 on the key issues indicating Sri Lanka was in no hurry to “bring the issue to a closure”. He said Sri Lanka should be encouraged and assisted in finding innovative and viable local mechanisms and processes which incorporates international best practices, ….only then, it will be able to bring closure to these events, which would “enjoy the confidence of victims and society at large”. In other words, Sri Lanka cannot adhere to a time bound implementation process.


However, since then the President has distanced himself from the government’s co-sponsorship of a resolution at the UNHRC. In a speech on March 27, he said Sri Lanka’s consent to the resolution was without his knowledge or that of the foreign minister. He said the action resulted from “wrong decisions by sections of the government”. The president was responsible for the foreign affairs of the country, not anyone else, he added. In the continuing confused political scene, Sri Lanka rulers’ priorities appear to be far from international expectations on accountability and human right issues.


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, April 2019;

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