Has there been genuine national reconciliation in Sri Lanka?
If there is considerable consternation in political circles in India over what took place at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva recently over a two-year extension for Sri Lanka to come to terms with issues of the post-conflict era, it is only understandable.
Once again the international community, led by the United States and Britain, have given one more chance to the powers that be in Colombo to put in motion a judicial and political process that squarely comes to term with the national reconciliation process.
That there has been constant huffing and puffing on how to go about the procedural aspects of substantive issues in the island nation has been conveniently glossed over — for now, there is another extension and in the name of a Consensus Resolution on which there was no vote.
In the event of a division, member-nations would have been forced to spell out their views leading to embarrassing moments in the fashion they were going to characterise their versions of the goings on in Sri Lanka.
Colombo got the two-year extension to fully implement the commitments made under the 2015 Resolution but not before the top Human Rights official Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein made it known that Sri Lanka had registered only “slow progress” of reforms.
Consistently, since the end of the ethnic conflict in 2009, the governments in Sri Lanka have been accused of war crimes especially during the final weeks of the war. The issue is not only the alleged killing of Tamil civilians but also of those families who have been demanding a closure on those who have disappeared during the course of the 26-year-long brutal war.
The regime of President Mahinda Rajapakse scoffed at a United Nations probe into the alleged crimes of the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and even going to the extent of denying entry of United Nations officials into the country.
The coming of President Maithiripala Sirisena signalled a positive change in Colombo’s attitude, but two years down the line there is a perception that the new scheme of things have not come to terms with war crimes, torture, unlawful killings and forced disappearances. And adding to all this is the persistent objection to formal internationalisation of any probe on war crimes.
Statistics vary but it is generally believed that more than 100,000 persons — mostly Tamil civilians — perished during the conflict and perhaps an equal number that have not been accounted for. Even at the recent Geneva meeting, Sri Lanka’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Harsha de Silva maintained that his government was striving to establish law of the land and end impunity under “Sri Lankan-government-led processes”.
But Human Rights Watch echoed the views expressed by the Rights High Commissioner, especially in the rather slow implementation of the Council’s Resolution 30/1.
“The promised office on enforced disappearances has yet to be established, although enabling legislation was passed in June 2016. Legislation to establish three other transitional justice mechanisms pledged under the 30/1 resolution remain in draft form. We are also concerned about other undertakings in the resolution that have not been implemented” HRW said in a statement a few days before the latest Geneva session.
Even more telling was the observation on security sector reforms. “… barring a handful of prosecutions in high profile cases, has simply not occurred. Torture by the security forces remains endemic, a fact underscored by the recent report of the Special Rapporteur on torture as well as by Human Rights Watch and other groups.”
The government talks about a “zero tolerance” policy against torture while in Geneva, “but takes no action back home”, the HRW said, a view that is endorsed by independent observers and Tamil Groups, including the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. To a very large extent, all these have been brushed aside by official Colombo in the past, especially by the Rajapakse regime, as having vested interests or pro-LTTE leaning sympathisers.
“Sri Lanka took a strong step in co-sponsoring resolution 30/1, raising hopes and the promise of reconciliation, reform and justice but the pace of progress, combined with contradictory government statements back home, risk undermining the confidence and trust so important to a successful outcome,” the HRW observed. In fact, one point that has been emphasised in the current debate is that the international body must have established benchmarks and time-lines for Sri Lanka as a way of ensuring its commitments to the international community.
In the absence of this, there is a nagging fear that the two-year extension is nothing more than extending a process that has not even been firmly established.
Further, one would have to bear in mind that the latest Consensus Resolution on giving Colombo another two years runs the risk of becoming embroiled in the election process of 2020. With Rajapakse hardliners keen on staging a comeback and the Sirisena group not wanting to abandon power, the net loser will be the national reconciliation process.
And heading the list of losing propositions will be a genuine probe into the civilian killings and disappearances — under the guise of national sovereignty. The world is already a witness to an “interesting” verbal duel between former Defence Secretary Mahinda Gotabaya and Army Chief Sarath Fonseka on who was responsible for the “top secret death squads” responsible for the killing of journalists and dissidents.
That there has been a change in the political environment in Sri Lanka over the last two years is there for all to see. But the question to be asked is if Colombo has used this change of atmospherics and perceptions to put in place a genuine national reconciliation process. This is going to take time as seen from other societies that have been ravaged by a civil war that took its toll in human and material terms.
To a country like India, the goings on in a friendly neighbour state have ramifications that are much beyond political, economic and strategic dimensions. It is also firmly entrenched in protecting the lives and livelihood of Tamils in that island nation who yearn to continue living there and with dignity.
(The author, an Assistant Professor in the Dept. of Journalism and Mass Communication of the Faculty of Science and Humanities, SRM University, Chennai, specialises on issues of Identity, Assimilation and Alienation of Indian Diaspora. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org)