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Speaking Frankly About Sri Lanka's President and Wartime Abuses

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Reviewing a year of Sirisena’s presidency, Taylor Dibbert raised concerns on the urgent need for security sector reform, witness protection, and accountability for wartime abuses which could include war crimes.

Full opinion reproduced below.

In January 2015, Maithripala Sirisena, unexpectedly thwarted Mahinda Rajapaksa's quest for an unprecedented third presidential term. According to his campaign pledges, Sirisena hoped to address various issues including constitutional reform, anti-corruption and improved governance. The broad coalition that supported his campaign could at least agree on one thing: that Rajapaksa needed to go.
Years from now, how will the election of Sirisena be remembered? And what about healing those wounds of war and finding a lasting political solution to an ethnic conflict that has burned for seven decades?

Here's the deal: war-related matters weren't discussed during either of the country's two big elections in 2015. (Sirisena dissolved parliament last June and a parliamentary election was held last August.) However, in October 2015 the Sirisena administration agreed to co-sponsor a resolution on Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council. In several areas, the resolution lacked clarity, but its passage was still a welcome development. Essentially, Sri Lanka's coalition government has established the broad outlines of what could be a strong transitional justice agenda, although Colombo's been reluctant to implement its purported plans. Without question, the most difficult and controversial part of transitional justice will be accountability for wartime abuses, which could include war crimes.

A former member of Rajapaksa's cabinet, is Sirisena really a man who could lead the way on such controversial issues? As acting defense minister during the bloody end of Sri Lanka's civil war, would Sirisena be interested in the possibility of senior government officials being held accountable for horrific abuses?

Besides, there have already been some questionable appointments of senior military officials under his watch. For example, Sirisena appointed Major General Jagath Dias to chief of staff for the Sri Lanka Army. During the end of the war, Dias commanded the army's 57th division which has been accused of war crimes.

A couple of credible studies (by the International Truth and Justice Project - Sri Lanka and Freedom from Torture) have revealed that torture and sexual violence against Tamils has continued these past twelve months. Moreover, there's no indication that Sirisena is contemplating the security sector reform which is so urgently needed. In that context, one has to wonder whether transitional justice, on any level, is possible in the present context. How would victims and survivors participate freely? How would witness protection be ensured? Could Tamils actually have faith in a process that's managed solely by the Sinhala-dominated state? Over the next twelve months, we should have a much better idea of how serious Sirisena is about meaningful reform and healing the wounds of war.