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Authoritarianism is on the rise in Sri Lanka – Abarna Selvarajah and Brannavy Jeyasundaram

Writing in Jacobin, Abarna Selvarajah and Brannavy Jeyasundara highlight the growing authoritarianism in Sri Lanka as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa plans to bring forwards a 20th amendment to the constitution which will “expands the role of the presidential office and scales back constitutional checks and balances on executive powers”.

The proposed amendment, which has been fiercely criticised, is aimed to replace the existing 19th amendment, “which limits presidential powers by imposing term limits, [eliminates] presidential immunity from prosecution, and [requires] parliamentary oversight of presidential appointments”.

Plans to abolish the 19th amendment appear far more likely since the August 2020 parliamentary elections, in which the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party, effectively secured a two-thirds majority, “consolidating their ethno-nationalist agenda”.

The authors note that the 20th amendment will further remove the duty of the president in “promoting national reconciliation and integration,” and grants to the president the power to “assign to himself any subject of function” — in essence, unrestrained executive control.

They further state that the 19th amendment, which “was once lauded as a revolutionary reform to the Sri Lankan constitution [….] is anticipated to be completely undone in a matter of weeks”.


The good governance regime

Selvarajah and Jeyasundara maintain that to understand the context for this reversal; it is important to understand the “comparatively more moderate” candidacy of Maithripala Sirisena, under the United National Party (UNP); as well as the “collective and self-serving amnesia of the Tamil genocide by the international community” following Sirisena’s victory; and “the profound failure of transitional justice mechanisms”.

According to the writers, Sirisena’s victory in 2015, “ushering in renewed faith from the international community following Sri Lanka’s period of isolation post-2009”, and “brought forward promises of reform and reconciliation”.

Sirisena’s co-sponsorship of UN Resolution 30/1, pledged Sri Lanka to four mechanisms for transitional justice; a hybrid judicial mechanism with foreign participation to try persons accused of committing war crimes; an Office for Missing Persons (OMP); an Office for Reparations, and a Commission for Truth, Justice; Reconciliation and Non-Recurrence.


The failure of the OMP

Only the OMP became operationalised but garnered significant criticism from the victim-survivor community for its failure to centre the voices of families of the disappeared as well as address significant issues of accountability. Tamil families of the disappeared have protested for over 1,289 days demanding to know what happened to their loved ones. Many of those who have protested have died without knowing the fate of their loved ones. The ITJP has further reported that they have been “abducted, tortured, and raped” in the search for the truth about the disappeared

Read more here: Tamil activists 'abducted, tortured and raped' for involvement in the search of the disappeared

Whilst state surveillance, threats and harassment persist, international actors and politicians who had previously supported the OMP have been noticeably silent, the writers state. According to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances 2020 report;

“the recurrence of disappearances following the change in Government has raised serious questions about the ability and willingness to end the practice all together.”


The authors have further commented on the issue of accountability, noting that in 2017 then President Sirisena claimed that he was “not a traitor” and that there will be no “international war crimes tribunals or foreign judges.” In the same year, he was shortlisted by the Peace Research Institute Oslo for the Nobel Peace Prize for his alleged support for “inclusive reconciliation”. Selvarajah and Jeyasundara highlight that this “outright dismissal of Tamil victim-survivors” has led to increasing calls for an international process for transitional justice and accountability such as through the International Criminal Court.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Pablo de Greiff’s, recent report on Sri Lanka highlights a “dismal record” on accountability and further maintains that the country appears to have missed a “historic opportunity” for sustainable peace due to the government’s “lack of commitment”         

In his report he notes;       

“Nothing has hindered the transitional justice programme in Sri Lanka more than lack of commitment on the part of the Government, which was not only slow in terms of design and implementation, but which wavered in its messaging and ultimately has failed up to this point to take full ownership of the process. Sri Lanka has a long history of partial compliance with its human rights obligations, which is not actually a form of compliance but, ultimately, one of non-compliance”.

Read more here: Sri Lanka has missed a ‘historic opportunity’ for transitional justice and holds a ‘dismal record’ on accountability - UN Special Rapporteur

For the authors, the “good governance” regime was merely a “parade of progress” which has “revealed itself to be nothing more than a catalyst into authoritarianism”.

“The transitional justice mechanisms outlined in 30/1 are meaningless words that have left Tamil victim-survivors more vulnerable to violence”, they add.

Achieving justice in Sri Lanka

In concluding their piece, the authors maintain that justice in Sri Lanka is dependent on “mechanisms that understand and address the stain of impunity that has propelled war criminals into parliament”.

Despite over a decade passing since the end of the armed conflict, Tamil victim-survivors continue to stage protests “calling for accountability rather than ‘peacebuilding’ and ‘reconciliation’, note the authors.

They further call on the international community to “take heed and end bilateral military cooperation with the Sri Lankan army”.

They also call for “the UN Security Council must refer Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court and UN Member States should bring a case against Sri Lanka at the International Court of Justice”.

“Justice is the only thing that can interrupt Sri Lanka’s cycles of violence.  Anything less will fuel Sri Lanka’s autocracy”.

Read the full piece at Jacobin.

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