Sri Lanka Perspectives: January 2021
by R Hariharan on 09 Feb 2021 0 Comment

Is it payback time for reversing ethnic reconciliation process?


The first month of the year 2021 gave a glimpse to Sri Lankans of the three major, inter-related issues they are likely to confront during the year. These are: further hardening of government attitudes to ethnic reconciliation, more militarisation of governance, and fighting a losing battle to managing the battered economy. Two of the issues are not new; but militarisation of governance can be attributed to the rise of majoritarian triumphalism after the army finally eliminated the LTTE-led separatists in the Eelam War in 2009.


The international tourist travel, national economy’s lifeblood, is yet to recover from the effects of Covid pandemic. It is likely to slowly recover depending upon how Sri Lanka regains global credibility in the fight against the pandemic. Sri Lanka has to successfully turn international vaccine politics to its advantage, without annoying the major powers involved in it. At least for now, India has taken the lead, gifting half a million doses of Covishield vaccine. As it always happens, China’s terms of its gift of Chinese vaccine are neither clear nor transparent. Russia has also entered the vaccine fray, saying it would allow Sri Lanka to manufacture the Russian vaccine, though details are not yet available. 


Confrontation vs. Consensus


The next two months are going to be testing times for the government, as it grapples with international fallout President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to disown co-sponsorship of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution 30/1. The resolution was rolled over twice to provide time to Sri Lanka to fulfill its promises on accountability for its actions on alleged human rights excesses during the Eelam war. 


President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s highly militarised government’s decisions, based on Sinhala Buddhist ethnocentric considerations, have rapidly reversed the progress on ethnic reconciliation made by his predecessors, including those of his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Though many among the Sinhala majority consider their country as the last bastion of Theravada Buddhism, in politics, Buddhist ethnocentric elements never occupied the central space. They seem to be calling the shots now. Even when Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to wage the ‘final war’ to defeat the Tamil separatists of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), he leveraged ethnic reconciliation, rather than ethnocentric nationalism, in his political discourse.


So, it is not surprising that the UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s report on Sri Lanka’s accountability issues is scathing on Sri Lanka government’s conduct.  The report will be discussed during the 46th session of the UNHRC from February 22 to March 19, 2021.


The UN High Commissioner’s report says, “Nearly 12 years on from the end of the war, domestic initiatives for accountability and reconciliation have repeatedly failed to produce results, more deeply entrenching impunity and exacerbating victims’ distrust of the system... Sri Lanka remains in a state of denial about the past, with truth-seeking efforts aborted and the highest state officials refusing to make any acknowledgement of past crimes.” These words sum up, not only the views of the High Commissioner, but also reflect the views of many national and international civil society groups. 


Warning that this has a direct impact on the present and the future of Sri Lanka, Ms. Bachelet states, “The failure to implement any vetting or comprehensive reforms in the security sector means that the State apparatus and some its members credibly implicated in the alleged grave crimes and human rights violations remain in place.”


Noting the 2015 reforms that “offered more checks and balances on executive power” have been rolled back, “eroding independence of judiciary and other key institutions further.” It says “the beginnings of a more inclusive national discourse that promised greater recognition and respect of and reconciliation with minority communities have been reversed. Far from achieving the ‘guarantees of non-recurrence’ promised by resolution 30/1, Sri Lanka’s current trajectory sets the scene for recurrence of the policies and practices that gave rise to grave human rights violations.” There cannot be a more scathing indictment of the Rajapaksa style of governance.


She has also referred to the emergency security deployments in the wake of Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in 2019 “have evolved into an increased militarisation of the State.” In particular, the report notes the Government has appointed active and former military personnel, including those credibly implicated in war crimes, to key positions in the civilian administration, and created parallel task forces and commissions that encroach upon civilian administration, reversing the democratic gains as a result of 20th Constitutional amendment.

She has urged the Sri Lanka authorities to immediately end all forms of surveillance, including intimidating visits by State agents and harassment against human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and victims of human rights violations, and refrain from imposing further restrictive legal measures on legitimate civil society.


The High Commissioner has urged the HRC to take action on Sri Lanka for three important reasons. These are:-

Failure to deal with the past will have devastating effect on the survivors of all communities, who need justice and urgent reparation;

Failure to advance accountability and reconciliation undermines prospects of peace and development and carries seeds of potential conflict in the future;

The trends highlighted in the report represent “yet again” an important challenge for the UN and the HRC. If no action is taken it will undermine its “efforts to prevent and achieve accountability for grave violations in other contexts.”


Sri Lanka should be particularly concerned with her call for the UN to set out a coherent and effective plan to advance accountability options at the international level. The options suggested include, taking steps towards the referral of the situation in Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court, member states actively pursuing investigation and prosecution of international crimes committed by parties before their national courts, and applying targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel ban against state officials and other alleged persons responsible for committing such violations. 


While it was understandable that President Rajapaksa was angered by the UN High Commissioner’s report, it should not be allowed to override a nuanced, common sense approach couched in diplomatic nicety. According to media reports, Sri Lanka government’s response appeared to be to confront the international body on its findings, rather than build a consensus towards fielding an alternate resolution.


Foreign affairs are one of the weakest links of the Rajapaksa government. On more than one occasion, its representatives had been found to be ham-handed in handling foreign affairs issues. They have been found debating sensitive issues on public forums, rather than discussing them through private channel. How Sri Lanka fares in the UNHRC session may decide much of the international attitudes to Sri Lanka in the coming months.



South Asia Security Trends, February 1, 2021,


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