Sri Lankan police have recently uncovered ammunition, a suicide vest, and explosives in Chavakachcheri, a town in the country’s north. It’s widely (and realistically) believed that this is an old arms cache. Let’s keep in mind that from 1983-2009 a brutal civil war raged in this South Asian island nation. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were fighting for a separate Tamil state in the country’s Northern and Eastern Provinces. In May 2009, the Sri Lankan government – under the leadership of former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa – militarily crushed the LTTE. However, Sinhala nationalism and the idea (however remote) of the LTTE regrouping within the country can still be used for domestic political gain, especially by Rajapaksa. After all, in the eyes of many Sinhala people, Sri Lanka’s overwhelming ethnic majority, Rajapaksa remains a war hero who defeated a ruthless separatist organization. Though Rajapaksa unexpectedly lost the country’s January 2015 presidential election, he is currently a member of parliament. Given the wide-ranging corruption allegations against him and his family, he has no incentive to leave public life. In that context, it’s unsurprising that the former president has chosen to weigh in regarding the recent arms discovery. According to Rajapaksa, the weapons that the police found weren’t old, the implication being that the country should be concerned about a return to Tamil militancy in the Tamil-dominated north.
Processes in Sri Lanka towards accountability and justice must keep victims at the centre, said Dharsha Jegatheeswaran in an article for the University of Toronto Faculty of Law’s Rights Review Magazine . Commenting on the erosion of victims’ confidence since UN Resolution 30/1, alongside the government’s reneging on its commitments thereunder, Ms Jegatheeswaran said, “Initial cautious hopes of Tamil victims and war-affected communities have turned to distrust and skepticism of the government’s intentions as a result of this mixed messaging. This distrust has been further deepened by the government’s failure to undertake any meaningful confidence-building measures and address ongoing human rights violations, including: demilitarizing the North-East; repealing the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act and releasing all political prisoners arrested thereunder; returning all illegally acquired lands; and ending a culture of impunity/condonation for sexual violence and torture.”
Could Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former defense secretary (and brother of previous president Mahinda Rajapaksa), bring the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) together? Evidently a member of the country’s joint opposition has suggested that Rajapaksa be appointed to parliament, the implication being that this move would help to unify a political party that has remained divided since Maithripala Sirisena assumed the presidency in January 2015.
In Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena had promised progress regarding Tamil political prisoners, although we’ve seen little of that. Unfortunately, the president’s dithering project has continued — with no end in sight. More broadly, the Sri Lankan government has made big commitments regarding transitional justice and those changes, if they ever happen, will come incrementally. However, we haven’t seen much in the way of incremental change since Colombo co-sponsored a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka in October 2015.
The United Nations assistant secretary general for field support, who quit his job earlier this month, said that the organisation “is failing” and “needs a leader genuinely committed to reform”. Anthony Banbury detailed “ colossal mismanagement ” in the world body, including bureaucracy that he described as “blur of Orwellian admonitions and Carrollian logic that govern the place”. “If you locked a team of evil geniuses in a laboratory, they could not design a bureaucracy so maddeningly complex, requiring so much effort but in the end incapable of delivering the intended result,” he said. “The system is a black hole into which disappear countless tax dollars and human aspirations, never to be seen again.” The result of this was “ minimal accountability ,” he continued. Citing the example of a “manifestly incompetent” chief-of-staff of a large peacekeeping mission, Mr Banbury said “many have tried to get rid of him, but short of a serious crime, it is virtually impossible to fire someone in the United Nations ”.
Getting adequate foreign direct investment (FDI) of the right types has eluded the country for many decades. While former communist countries like Vietnam have attracted sizeable amounts of FDI, Sri Lanka continues to get an inadequate flow of FDI. The statistics of the amount of FDI received are flawed as they contain other capital inflows. Even the exaggerated figures are low and inadequate. The country has reached a turning point when the attraction of much higher amounts of FDI is vital to sustain the growth momentum. Obtaining much higher amounts of the right types of FDI will determine the pace of economic growth in the next decade. Much higher FDI is essential as the country’s investment resources are limited and technological capacities have to be augmented to capture export markets.
During the U.S.-Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue, Washington should elevate Sri Lanka’s transitional justice debate. The unexpected election of Maithripala Sirisena in Sri Lanka’s January 2015 polls has resulted in the Barack Obama administration’s fervent desire to turn the page on what became a strained, bitter bilateral relationship under the reign of the previous president. Mahinda Rajapaksa had been in power for nearly a decade and oversaw the decisive military defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers – ending a civil war which lasted from 1983-2009. Rajapaksa’s proclivity for corruption, nepotism, and heightened authoritarianism ultimately led to his unexpected ouster. Mangala Samaraweera, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, is currently in Washington, D.C. This high-level visit is due to evolving U.S.-Sri Lanka ties and the commencement of the first ever U.S.-Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue. An array of issues such as economic and security cooperation, governance, and regional affairs will be discussed on February 26. It remains to be seen whether transitional justice will receive significant attention, either publicly or privately.
Meaningful international participation in an accountability process in Sri Lanka is vital for genuine reconciliation, writes senior legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists Nikhil Narayan. “The call by domestic and international human rights activists and observers for an accountability process that involves, as a minimum prerequisite, the meaningful participation of a majority of foreign judges and other personnel is very simply a matter of restoring public trust in the rule of law in the country, through a credible, impartial, independent, victim-centric transitional justice process that effectively addresses victims’ right to truth, justice, remedy and reparation, and on whose foundation the country can move forward with genuine reconciliation.” See full opinion peace below:
In spite of the country’s recent democratic gains, problems continue to plague Sri Lanka’s Tamil-dominated Northern Province. It’s been over a year since Maithripala Sirisena assumed the presidency, although much about daily life in Sri Lanka’s war-torn Northern Province remains the same. “There’s a reduced number of troops on the road,” says Shalin Uthayarasa, a journalist. “We’re experiencing a temporary respite in repression.” Uthayarasa goes on to mention that his two previous points apply to ordinary people, but aren’t relevant for journalists or human rights activists, who continue to face threats (or worse) from state security personnel. “I’m sure they [the Sri Lanka Army] haven’t reduced troop numbers,” he tells me.
Survivors of torture in Sri Lanka feel they will not receive impartial justice unless international judges and lawyers are involved, writes the founder of Survivors Speak Out (SSO). “The message is clear: a strong, credible justice process for Sri Lanka requires independent international participation. It is up to the international community to be vigilant in ensuring that Sri Lanka fulfills the commitments it made to the UN Human Rights Council by allowing this to take place,” said Kolbassia Haussou. See full opinion below.