Sri Lanka’s Reconciliation Agenda by Shakthi De Silva

  4 comments   |     by Shakthi De Silva

Sri Lanka looking committed in building institutions and mechanisms, brick by brick and in middle of balancing relations with East vis-a-vis West but internal human rights situation still a challenge.

Sri Lanka continues to maintain a delicate balance in its ties with the West and the Asian powers (Russia, China and India). After pledges to assemble institutions and mechanisms on reconciliation a wavering question arises. Facing stiff political resistance at home, how could Sri Lanka sustain her ties with the West and the East when concerns hover over internal human rights dilemmas?

My previous piece at the looked into the foreign policy of Sri Lanka in the tense geopolitical backdrop of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative and South Asian perspective. This article (part two) briefly analyzes the impact from issues related to human rights and reconciliation on the formulation of foreign policy in Sri Lanka. A brief, I wrote at the end of 2016, highlighted the achievements and failures of the Maithripala government since it took office in 2015; and aspects, which I have not highlighted in it, will also be succinctly deliberated here.

Maithripala Sirisena, the incumbent president of Island, promised to usher political reform, reconciliation, a halt on corruption and nepotism, which had been allegedly rampant in the previous regime. Following the presidential elections in January 2015, the Sirisena government was similarly able to win the general elections. Such recurring mandates by the people showcased the trust that was placed by different communities on the present government. However, the election results also had an unintended impact on the domestic political arena, because, neither of the parties forming the coalition government obtained a significant percentage of seats each party (United National Party and Sri Lanka Freedom Party) was reliant on each other.

Moreover, the former President (Mahinda Rajapaksa) obtained a significant vote making him politically relevant but not predominantly powerful as he used to be. “The spectre of the return to power of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa thus becomes a critical aspect in Sri Lanka’s political landscape.” Possibly the greatest upshot from this was that if the government pushed too hard and too fast on the reconciliation and transitional justice agenda, Rajapakse could (and did) gain political capital by stimulating fears about the “nefarious” prospect by the present government of taking Sri Lankan soldiers to war-crime tribunals. Therefore, the path to reconciliation and truth seeking, requires a carefully crafted and effective strategy, which could harness all communities to stand together to reach the stated reconciliation related objectives of the government.

Sri Lanka Since the Change of Government

Sri Lanka co-sponsored a resolution following the government transition of 2015. This resolution 30/1 of October 2015 recommended the establishment of truth-seeking and reparations mechanisms and a special court to prosecute grave crimes committed during the final years of the conflict. It also called for broad legal and security sector reform to improve the country’s human rights situation. Through the resolution the government promised four mechanisms to promote transitional justice. In addition to the Office of Missing Persons, the government undertook to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a Special Court on Accountability and an Office of Reparations.

Highlighting the difference between the Rajapakse regime and the Sirisena government, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says: “the new government quickly abolished surveillance and censorship of media and civil society groups, embarked on constitutional reforms to restrict executive powers, and took steps to restore the independence of the judiciary. In contrast to the combative approach of the Rajapaksa government, it also initiated a new, more open dialogue with the international community, including human rights organizations”.

In August 2016, the Sri Lankan parliament enacted the Office of Missing Persons Act and in January 2017 the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms was able to submit its report to Mrs. Kumaratunga. The office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) was instituted and the Right to Information Act was passed. In August 2016, the Sri Lankan cabinet approved a National Policy on Durable Solutions for Conflict-Affected Displacement. Such achievements are emblematic of the actions taken by the present administration; demonstrating a conspicuous hue of (maybe) possessing the political will to realize its promises.

However, the government has been criticized for lack of speed and political will in effecting its pledges. Dr. Jehan Perera iterates this sentiment noting that: “The Office of Missing Persons, has received parliamentary assent, but it is still only on paper. The OMP has yet to be operationalized. In the meantime, the fate of missing persons continues to remain as unknown as it was 18 months ago when the government promised to set up an OMP, which would be tasked with the mission of ascertaining the whereabouts of those still missing or what actually happened to them.”

If one takes the issue of the ‘international investigation’ with the participation of foreign judges; the government has on numerous occasions backtracked from this stance. In August 2015, the prime minister was among the first to indicate that the government does not intend to set up an investigation with the participation of foreign judges. In an interview to the Hindu in August 2015, he said:

“But we (United National Party – which is one of the two parties forming the present government) always said that there was no legal basis for international investigation within Sri Lanka; it had to be domestic. The reason, some of the people have been calling for international investigation is the loss of confidence in the judiciary. We’ve had this problem before, in the North and in the South. We would like to put forward a domestic mechanism, which would be within the four corners of our Constitution but would also be acceptable to all the communities in Sri Lanka plus the international community.”

In February 2016, the Prime Minister chellenged any contention of the involvement of foreign judges. Addressing a gathering of monks of the Ramanya sect, president Sirisena emphasized that: “As long as I am the President I will not allow foreigners or [foreign] organizations to interfere in the internal affairs”. As the public gradually came to be aware of snippets of the co-sponsored resolution in 2015 the “joint opposition” led by the former President Rajapakse made significant political capital by inciting fear and anxiety of the dealings between the Sirisena government and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Sri Lanka has always been an exemplary specimen of competitive politics in the domestic arena and this is undoubtedly a case in point. Unable and unwilling to follow the Rajapakse’s path of courting China and refusing to deal with the issues at hand, the Sirisena government chose to take the difficult and arduous path of reconciliation and truth seeking. Yet faced with an onslaught of fabrications and deceit by the former president as well as internal pulls and pushes within his own party the impetus to moving forward seems to have lost its strength.

Foreign Minister’s Campaign

This year saw the continuation of the fruition of Mangala Samaweera’s efforts at inducing the world powers to accept – that despite inherent difficulties and sluggishness in implementation – the government ought to be commended for its efforts. This year 2017, saw the UNHRC Resolution 34/1 titled Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka – cosponsored by the Government – adopted by the 47-member Human Rights Council.

The government faces difficulties internally and externally in implementing and executing its premeditated policies. On the one hand, internally, certain SLFP members (within the government) are not inclined towards dealing with issues concerning human rights. In fact, some members only appear to be reluctantly accepting the government’s stance in this regard. Some have emphasized the importance of putting constitution making as the principal priority for the government and for reconciliation and transitional justice to be put on the backburner.

Externally; the ‘joint opposition party’ led by former president Rajapakse continues to hype its ‘fake news’ campaign to revitalize fear; creating an impression among people that the present governments actions will only bring harm to the armed forces of the country. These factors have led the government to be sluggish at implementing much of its planned actions.

Linkages: Domestic and Foreign Policies

While the resolution of 2017 gives the government some breathing space – two years to be precise – the government has a serious task ahead of it. To prove not just to the international community but more importantly to the domestic electorate that it is genuinely applying itself on the path it promised to embark upon. But, how has this impacted the islands foreign policy? While continued engagement with the international community through the UNHRC has allowed Sri Lanka to re-build ties with the West, the government has concomitantly been able to maintain close ties with China and Russia.

The United National Party has historically been close to the west and this relationship continued under the Prime Minister Wickramasinghe. Nevertheless, the SLFP which is led by the President has historically been inclined to India, China and Russia. A most interesting foreign policy dynamic emerges following the amalgamation of the SLFP and the UNP factions. This led a more balanced foreign policy; with the UNP close to the west and the SLFP to three Asian giants namely India, Russia and China. In fact this mergence has resulted in an ideal “middle path”. It has allowed the state to have close ties with the west reflected by the cosponsoring of two resolutions with America while at the same time continuing relations with China and Russia without any qualms of upsetting ties with the west.

However, if the reconciliation agenda fails to materialize either due to internal or external causes the relationship with the west will be negatively affected. This opportunity of having amicable ties with the west and the east must not be put in jeopardy. Ideally the foremost factor behind the governments’ reconciliation agenda should be to meet the aspirations of its people but one cannot disregard the negativities involved of losing the favor of the west, if the agenda fails to meet the aspirations of Sri Lankans.

To conclude, in present circumstances, Sri Lanka’s commitment to construct institutions and mechanisms on reconciliation have markedly assisted her to develop ties with the west and at the same time, engagement with Russia, China and India. But valid concerns remain as to whether the government can maintain the amicable balance with all, in the face of internal and external complicated challenges.

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