Like a great sporting event that comes every other year, Geneva is the venue and the time for Sri Lanka’s post-conflict national sport: hopscotch. Adding to the expertise that comes with time, for eleven years Sri Lanka has excelled at this game among halls where human rights regiments meet. Buying time with promises of ‘doing better’ was seen as a triumph. When countries that insist on accountability and restoration apply pressure, pro-government sources saw it as an ‘international conspiracy’. Local bodies who spoke for the rights of conflict victims were seen as ‘traitors of the country’. The game of hopscotch was played with this kind of rhetoric. This year, however, there is an added concern. The UN Human Rights Council, we are told, has changed its own language and presented a strong report against Sri Lanka’s hopscotch past.
"The outcomes of the Geneva sessions are hinged on many undercurrents within local and global politics. Right now, Sri Lanka is vigorously canvassing for support in the council"
Earlier in February, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet tabled a case against Sri Lanka in a report that focused on both the country’s slow and staggering post-conflict reconciliation programme as well as the conditions brought on Sri Lanka after the 20th Amendment passed in 2020. Bachelet drew attention to a decade-long restoration effort that had still left many parties unsatisfactory – which, in its latest attempt, ended in September 2019 after a three year struggle to take off. In September 2019, the Sri Lankan state revoked a resolution it co-sponsored in 2015: Resolution 30/1 through which the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition pledged to carry forward a meaningful programme towards restoration and accountability.
But, Bachelet’s focus was not only on past sins. A foreign TV channel reported the UNHRC as being cautious of some of the tangible outcomes of the 20th Amendment. It quoted Bachelet as suggesting that the “independence of the judiciary, the Human Rights Commission, the National Police Commission and other key bodies [to be] deeply eroded,” as a result of the new amendment which aided the greater centralization of power on the executive president. Bachelet’s attention had also been drawn by what she termed “growing militarization” within governance and the gloomy speculation that “past patterns of violations could be repeated”.
The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister had expressed displeasure over the HRC report. He had referred to the ongoing push against the Sri Lankan government as “unprecedented propaganda”. Speaking on several TV programmes, former diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka emphasised the seriousness of the pressure building against the Sri Lankan government at the UNHRC. In a 93-page report titled “Open Wounds and Mounting Dangers: Blocking Accountability for Grave Abuses in Sri Lanka” released in February, Human Rights Watch urged that the UNHRC should “pursue accountability” regarding the Sri Lankan situation.
The outcomes of the Geneva sessions are hinged on many undercurrents within local and global politics. Right now, Sri Lanka is vigorously canvassing for support in the council and – largely driven by geopolitical interests than the interest in dead and disappeared people – it will probably succeed in aligning several key players behind its defence. A castle may be moved a few spaces to make the contending player double-think before moving his piece, or a pawn will be shifted so that a bishop appears within the opponent’s line of vision. Chess and hopscotch have much in common.
"Whether the mechanism is local, hybrid, or foreign-assisted, Sri Lanka cannot move ahead without establishing truth or by admitting what went wrong and where."
Irrespective of what Geneva offers us in 2021, our poverty in finding a reasonable and acceptable justice scheme and a meaningful reconciliation programme remains unfortunate. An arm or a leg being broken in taking a fall, the last 12 years has been spent letting the bones reset themselves without opting for medical assistance. 2013 to 2017, in degrees, were years of promise. They include the last two years of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term and the more stable years of the Good Governance coalition led by the United National Front. But, the absence of a comprehensive, clearly-stated, clearly-understood, socially-invested framework – one that is nurtured and adopted by all as an inviolable policy – has ensured that social-healing in post-conflict Sri Lanka will remain a long road with many obstacles. Whether the mechanism is local, hybrid, or foreign-assisted, Sri Lanka cannot move ahead without establishing truth or by admitting what went wrong and where. The families of conflict-victims in the north, east, and elsewhere in the country do not demand lynching as redress for the deaths and disappearances of their beloved. But, as the custodian of the constitution and social safeguards of the country, the state is bound to be accountable for each life lost and affected under questionable circumstances. The state alone owes the people that explanation.
If the Sri Lankan government is in search of a guideline, it can turn back – like it did with the Lessons Learnt and Rehabilitation Commission (LLRC) in 2011 – to the South African example where truth establishment was given primary focus. The act of justice has several stages and, as some experts suggest, cannot be complete until perpetrators are sentenced and an atmosphere of ‘never again’ is created. But, for Sri Lanka – where the state has clearly expressed unwillingness to press charges against its military in any way – the path leading on from ‘truth establishment’ has to take a home-grown way. But, whatever that path may be, it is adverse to design it (as it is currently done) at the expense of burying the truth. In my opinion, Sri Lanka always had the option to situate the truth and acknowledge responsibility without having to buy into the ‘war crimes’ narrative. Our politicians and their advisors had instead chosen the curious game of hopscotch.