Sri Lanka Perspectives – March 2017: Politics of Sri Lanka’s UNHRC reprieve

Sri Lanka Perspectives – March 2017: Politics of Sri Lanka’s UNHRC reprieve

Colonel R Hariharan

Courtesy: South Asia Security Trends, April 2017 issue  www.security-risks.com 

President Maithripala Sirisena must be a happy man after the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution to give two more years to Sri Lanka, to fully implement all the commitments it made in the 2015 resolution to deliver justice to thousands of people affected by the Eelam wars. By co-sponsoring the latest resolution with the U.S., Sri Lanka had shown its readiness to positively engage with the international community on fulfilling its commitment to reconciliation and human rights, as pointed out by the U.S. head of delegation at the UNHRC.  The Sirisena government can claim the adoption of the resolution, without a vote, as a diplomatic victory of sorts; it showed the UNHRC members have positively responded to Sri Lanka’s plea for extension based on its performance so far, which had been recognized even by the not-so-kind report of the UN Human Rights Commissioner  presented at the session.

But, the two-year reprieve provides only relief; Sri Lanka’s success in buying time cannot hide its failure to take action on two basic requirements: ensuring meaningful devolution and creating credible transitional justice mechanisms. Unfortunately, these are stuck in the political logjam, perhaps aided and abetted by bureaucratic indifference. However, the two-year extension shows that the member-countries have some understanding of the limitations of the Sirisena government in evolving politically acceptable solutions on controversial issues like the inclusion of foreign judges in the transitional justice system or prosecuting army officers suspected of committing war crimes.

But the moot question is, can Sri Lanka fulfil its commitments to the UNHRC by 2019?

It will be difficult to wager on this, if we go by the politically supercharged environment created by ‘patriotic citizens’ (whatever it means) raising the question of national sovereignty in accepting the international dispensation on transitional justice. They seem to forget that their own role model – President Mahinda Rajapaksa – had invited foreign judicial luminaries to oversee inquiries of similar nature (though with disastrous end results). But it is in the nature of politics to be short on memories that do not suit the politicians.

Of course, one way out for the Sirisena government is to fast track the “doable” issues which can impart some momentum to the whole process. Two such issues are the return all the remaining private land under military occupation and replacement of the Prevention of Terrorism Act with human rights compliant enactment. These two issues have not been dealt with the alacrity to bring them to closure.  The aftermath of the legislation on the Office of Missing Persons, typically, shows the choke hold bureaucracy has in translating good intentions to produce positive results. It has brought no relief to thousands, who are mourning the fate of their missing kith and kin.

Considering the political paralysis affecting the government’s decision making process, it appears doubtful whether it can come up with a “time bound implementation strategy” to fulfil its outstanding commitments, as urged by the UK. The want of desire to act, rather than strategic planning, seems to be the malady affecting the government’s tardy performance. This is not merely restricted to human rights issues, but, governance as a whole if we go by the slow speed at which it produces results.

It only proves that good intentions or political rhetoric of the government is not enough. Even if the leaderships of both the main coalition partners are nervous about the right wing backlash on some of the controversial issues like the induction of foreign judges in the transitional justice mechanism, there is no reason for not acting upon non-controversial doable issues. Unless, the government shows sensitivity in acting upon these demands, its UNHRC reprieve will be a wasted one.

From the political discourse, it appears President Sirisena would act upon the gritty issues, only after consolidating his power base in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and gaining control of the ruling coalition, where the United National Party (UNP) constantly seem to be outguessing the presidential mind. Though the pro-Rajapaksa faction within the SLFP had been working against him, President Sirisena being in power, should be able to take effective damage control measures within the party. His appeals to the youth members of the SLFP to rally in support have to be read in this context.  However, the coalition contretemps are likely to be there, because it is in the nature of the two astute political leaders – Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe – to try and outmaneuver each other, in the marriage of the convenience that the ruling coalition is.

In this context, it is interesting to note the conduct of the so-called Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), made up of former LTTE overseas representatives and pro-Eelam elements of Tamil Diaspora. The TGTE would not be surprised that despite its plea to all members of the UNHRC “not to cave-in to a roll-over with an extension of time”, they did just that. The reason is simple: the rules of the game have changed.  Unlike the Cold War days, the real world now has little time to listen to political proxies of terrorist groups.

Col R Hariharan, a retired MI officer, served as the head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force from 1987 to 90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail: haridirect@gmail.com 

Posted Yesterday by R. Hariharan

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