Colombo, Sri Lanka: Reconciliation on the agenda

Dr P. Saravanamuttu

Recent government emphasis on economic development seems to run ahead of the needs of real unity, reconciliation and accountability

More than a year after the crushing military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Sri Lanka faces the challenge of moving from its current post-war state to a more positive peace-consolidation phase. At the very least, this will require that the sources of the conflict that plagued the country for over three decades are neither sustained nor reproduced. As to whether there can be peace without unity, unity without reconciliation and reconciliation without accountability, these are questions that both the government and the society at large will have to address if the country is to fully grasp the historic opportunity presented by the end of the war.

The trajectory of government policy, however, suggests a different perspective – one in which economic development is being posited as the panacea to achieve peace, reconciliation and national unity. This assumes that economic development will blunt political aspirations and grievances. There are signs that the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa intends to change the political culture of the country from the more boisterous and pluralistic one shared with India – and characterised by an implicit faith in democratic norms and traditions – to a more disciplined and monolithic South- East Asian-style state with an over-emphasis on purely economic priorities.

The end of the war has registered a record stock market boom and increased economic activity and growth, but it is by no means assured that this will, in full measure, underpin the government’s ambitious plans to make Sri Lanka a key economic hub of South Asia. Currently the emphasis is on tourism and infrastructure, dependence on Chinese and Indian assistance and investment, a substantial International Monetary Fund loan, requiring reductions in the budget deficit and public spending, as well as the reorientation of economic ties. As with previous attempts to trump the political with the economic, there is no discounting the assertion of the political, and the centrality of the transformation from war to peace-consolidation.

There seems little urgency with regard to a political settlement of the ethnic conflict. The recent focus of constitutional reform has been on the removal of the two six year terms bar on the executive presidency and most recently – probably on account of public disapproval of this as an attempt to consolidate dynastic rule – talks with the main opposition party on replacing the presidency with an executive premiership. Another issue on the agenda is the fate of the Constitution’s 17th Amendment, which provides for a number of independent oversight commissions, including for the police, public service and human rights. The government defends its non-implementation of this amendment by pointing to procedural flaws within it, and there is little urgency in respect of a commitment to independent oversight commissions that can act as checks and balances on the exercise of executive power and authority.

Resolution of the ethnic conflict revolves around the scheme of provincial devolution ushered in by the Constitution’s 13th Amendment following the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. The issue concerns whether there will be more devolution granted within a united Sri Lanka and its current unitary constitutional framework or whether the status quo will be maintained. Preliminary talks have been held between the government and the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), after the presidential and general elections were won resoundingly, if controversially, by Rajapaksa and his United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance. Talks have also been held among the government, India and the TNA, but the demonstrable progress has been slow.

The situation of the internally displaced persons (IDPs), although improved since their incarceration in encampments in their tens of thousands immediately after the war, is far from settled. Some 30,000 IDPs out of the initial 300,000 still remain in the camps along with another 10,000 surrendees, who have been denied access to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The majority of those released are in transit camps or with host families; their return home is delayed by the slow pace of demining operations, the existence of military high security zones and issues related to proof of land ownership. Allied to the questions of their livelihood and return is that of missing family members and the delay or reluctance of the authorities to issue death certificates. The number of civilian deaths in the last brutal days of the war remains unclear.

The government’s inability or unwillingness to reverse the culture of impunity over human rights violations and to address the question of accountability in respect of allegations of war crimes committed by both sides towards the end of the war is at the heart of the criticisms levelled against it by local and international civil society organisations, and by the United Nations and the European Union. The UN Secretary-General has set up a panel to advise him on this issue in the face of strident objections from the government. Recently a leading cabinet minister led an attempted siege of the UN compound in Colombo and embarked on a “fast to death” unless the panel was suspended. The Secretary-General stood firm and the hunger-strike was abandoned after two days. Sri Lanka has now lost an important EU trade concession based on the ratification and effective implementation of 27 international human rights instruments and labour standards. The EU decision identified action on 15 issues as the conditions for the extension of the concession. The governance and human rights issues identified have been the principal focus of civil society advocacy with the government.

The Rajapaksa administration’s response has been to allege infringements of national sovereignty by the West. The government claims all the criticisms are unfair since it has established a Presidential Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation (LLRC), although this has no investigative powers and no witness and victim protection scheme. Sri Lanka’s record with such commissions is poor. Over the past five years, the reports of at least two high-profile investigations into human rights violations were not made public and their recommendations were not adopted. One of them had an international panel attached to it, which left in frustration, identifying the Attorney-General’s office as a key obstacle to their work.

The government’s sensitivity on the issue of accountability is a major driver of its closeness to China, Russia and Iran. With regard to China, the relationship has raised questions about Beijing’s intentions in the Indian Ocean region and of Sri Lanka being turned into a site of Sino-Indian strategic competition. The government for its part has steadfastly maintained that its relations with Delhi are founded on age-old cultural bonds and geopolitical realities and that, in any event, Chinese interests in Sri Lanka are economic rather than military and involve assistance for infrastructural development. Despite the new overtures, the need for a lasting political settlement of the conflict will continue to underscore the central importance of good relations with India.

Post-conflict Sri Lanka is still well placed to achieve its full potential as long as the previously prevailing sense of fear and insecurity within society, and the ruling party, is no longer allowed to define the country’s politics.

About the author:

Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu is Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Colombo


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October 14, 2010 3:14 pm

International law and so called national sovereignty at times is farcical, it’s ignored when we choose to ignore it, and used by governments to place human rights under the veil of political correctness, or rather peaceful diplomacy.

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