As Sri Lanka gets placed, once again, on the Human Rights Council agenda this month, it is difficult to ignore the significant shifts -- internal and external -- that have taken place since Sri Lanka was last on the Council’s agenda in September 2015. Then, flush with victory and the confidence to champion reform, the Sri Lankan Government negotiated a finely-crafted resolution amid global plaudits. Back at home, the President was credited with what was termed an historic victory in Geneva. The government braved and comfortably carried a two-day debate on the text of the resolution itself and even convened a number of seminars and meetings through which to publicize the specifics concerning the resolution it co-sponsored. Contrary to mischievous mis-characterisations of the political dynamics among political leaders at the time, observers noted that there was in fact a remarkable unanimity between the President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister on the terms of the resolution. While the Prime Minister led the line-by-line negotiations surrounding the text, the President is by all credible accounts said to have been fully briefed on its contents with aides providing him a full translation of the text under negotiation. The President’s early leadership of an all-party conference on the implementation of the resolution and his early speeches on the need for introspection underscored this point.
Today, the situation is sharply different. While there will inevitably be another resolution requesting Sri Lanka to fully implement the terms of the 2015 resolution, the reporting period appears to be extended by two years, providing the government ample time within which to devise its strategy. Sri Lanka’s claim that the constitutional reform process must be given priority has been respected. However, the global mood with respect to Sri Lanka, and the appearance of credibility carried by the government has shifted. High Commissioner Zeid’s report was critical of the government, noting that the government has failed to advance accountability in sufficient measure. This frustration at the government’s failure to make use of existing political space will also likely be reflected by other country delegations in Geneva. Meanwhile, a number of UN Special Rapporteurs and treaty bodies have also released reports critical of the government’s human rights record.
While these reports point to the lack of progress on a range of human rights issues such as Transitional Justice, land releases, the PTA and witness protection, the fundamental driver of skepticism and frustration manifested in these reports comes from a growing feeling that the government is insincere. The President’s unilateral statements seeking to renegotiate a hard-fought compromise on international participation in the proposed special court may even have been forgiven by the international community, had he not gone further. His needless refusal to assign the Office of Missing Persons Act -- and thereby increasing the agonizing wait by families of the disappeared -- as well as his frequent presidential diatribes against NGOs that champion criminal accountability for human rights abuses have not gone unnoticed.
Left unchecked, the growing skepticism at home and abroad will in time exact a heavy reputational cost on Sri Lanka. For a government whose strategy of progress is hinged so heavily on international support and financial interaction, the loss of global face will not merely be symbolic and will in time come to affect financial bottom lines. Indeed, by failing to make good on its own promises and projecting hostility towards an agenda it voluntarily committed itself to less than two years ago, the government risks alienating a Tamil population which had resoundingly rejected extremists within its ranks. The loss of face for Tamil moderates occasioned by the government’s insincerity could have long-lasting and unanticipated results.
Ironically, the President’s posturing is unlikely to yield results within the constituencies he now attempts to represent. As many have pointed out, the best antidote to the abundant misconceptions on Transitional Justice is to in fact implement the promised mechanisms fully. Special courts tasked with hearing cases pertaining to human rights abuses, whether international, hybrid or purely domestic, only target a handful of cases, particularly those bearing the greatest responsibility up the chain of command. For instance, the ECCC in Cambodia has thus far convicted only four persons, while the ICC has convicted three. The Rwanda and Yugoslavia processes accounted for more convictions, but that intensive decades long effort is unlikely to be replicated ever again. In contrast, Sri Lanka’s regular criminal justice system has already tried dozens if not hundreds of low-ranking officers, most often trigger pullers, when information pertaining to human rights abuses came to light. The choice for the vast majority of the military’s cadres should therefore be clear: a relatively short process focusing on a handful of those in leadership positions, or a steady trickle of cases over decades targeting those who were compelled to carry out orders, while the real culprits escape punishment. And yet, given the government’s refusal to speak truthfully to its own constituency about Transitional Justice, misconceptions will continue to proliferate.
Unless and until a proper mechanism is in fact operationalized, the fear mongering around it will continue, even though such a mechanism should provide more comfort to the rank and file than the ordinary system’s preoccupation with punishing privates for the sins of the generals. As long as the government speaks with two tongues, with one message for Geneva and another for its own constituency, it will continue to haemorrhage support at home and abroad. In politics, as in life, sincerity is often the best policy.