The Government’s burgeoning human rights concerns, President Gotabaya turns to Prime Minister Modi for help

By Lankathilaka

Mounting pressure from human rights lobby: a chorus call to end impunity for accountability and justice

The balancing act with India and Pakistan

Rating agencies dismiss government’s claim of a rosy economy

Sri Lanka stands on the threshold of the 46th sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council and the storm clouds have been gathering.  The latest rap comes from Amnesty International. In its newest report, Old Ghosts in New Garb, Sri Lanka’s Return to Fear, which was released last week the organization highlights a litany of human rights concerns since the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) government took over. It expresses serious concerns about the crackdown on dissent by people from all walks of life and how they are being threatened, intimidated, harassed and jailed for expressing their views or doing their jobs in ways that displease the authorities.  The report highlights that it is resulting in a shrinking of civic space. The sixty- page report which includes anecdotal evidence from human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists details how the government has used existing laws and introduced new techniques to stifle dissent and points out the lack of credible domestic mechanisms for redress. It issues a chilling reminder of a risk of return to repression and violence because of similarities in trends between now and afterthe end of the conflict.  

Adding to the government’s burgeoning load of alleged human rights concerns was a statement issued this week by a group of former UN special rapporteurs and human rights commissioners and members of the Elders.  It underscores the concerns raised by the current Human Rights Commissioner in her report which was published in January and praises it for its preventive focus.  Among others the signatories are critical of the government’s appointment of ad hoc commissions, in particular the one appointed to examine the findings and recommendations on human rights violations of previous commissions. Calling it a ‘meta investigation’, the statement goes on to say that Sri Lanka’s reliance on such commissions would have been laughable if not for the seriousness of the issues at stake. Like the Amnesty report, it too bemoans that Sri Lanka has made its domestic justice institutions unavailable to its own victims.  

The report of the Human Rights commissioner is a damning one which raises deep concerns specificallyabout the militarization of civilian government functions (including the appointment and promotion of senior military officials identified in earlier UN reports as perpetrators of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final years of the conflict), the reversal of constitutional safeguards (which undermine, among other things the independence of the judiciary and key oversight commissions on the police and human rights), new sources of political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations (including by new Commissions of Inquiry that have intervened in ongoing cases), an increase in majoritarian rhetoric and exclusionary policies targeting Tamil and Muslim communities, unceasing surveillance and intimidation of civil society and shrinking democratic space (including the continued use of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, despite years of commitment to its repeal and replacement by an Act complying with international standards).

Both Amnesty and the statement by the Elders and others push for the recommendations of the Human Rights High Commissioner to be implemented.  Among these recommendations are for a pursuit of justice through international avenues such as the International Criminal Court because of Sri Lanka’s resistance to end impunity, targeted sanctions against alleged perpetrators of international crimes and the strengthening of monitoring and reporting by a dedicated special rapporteur. Recommendations have also been made to establish a mechanism to collect and preserve evidence and to initiate an indepth study of international accountability options.

These recommendations also echo those of the Tamil political parties and civil society and religious groups that took to the streets between Pottuvil and Polikandyduring their paada yaatra or P2P earlier this month. Having drawn a blank with successive Sri Lankan governments dragging their feet to implement provisions in Resolutions which had been passed by the Council, they upped the ante with letters to the Colombo based diplomatic community and the UN Human Rights Commissioner asking for Sri Lanka to be referred to the International Criminal Court and for an International Independent Investigative Mechanism, like the one in Syria, to be set up.

In any event the existing Resolution 40/1 to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka which was co- sponsored by the former government and which the current one opted out of, is ending this year and the international community will not let Sri Lanka off the hook easily. The international community and the UN are also under pressure from the human rights lobby in both Sri Lanka and abroad to pursue justice and accountability. What is also clear is that the buy-in of the government is needed to implement a resolution and so far, this has been forthcoming only at varying degrees. This is also why the core group on Sri Lanka- Canada, Germany, Monte Negro, North Macedonia and the UK–  has been trying to work out a consensual resolution for some weeks now with the GoSL.  

A highly placed source in the Foreign Ministry said that although the consensual resolution is at a standstill it is still on the cards.  ‘When the core group makes an offer it can’t be shifted off and Sri Lanka has given her observations on their proposal’, said the source.

Meanwhile political sources were clear there will be no consensual resolution and that the UK possibly, will present a resolution on Sri Lanka which will then be put to a vote.  The GoSL at this juncture will have to muster as much support as it can from the Councils 47 members among whom are India and Pakistan because the magnitude of the problem at the UNHRC is quite severe and the country needs a strong lobby at the sessions to defend Sri Lanka’s position. In that context, immediate neighbour India’s involvement will be vital to take Sri Lanka on a trajectory of recovery from long-standing human rights issues that have been plaguing the country for decades and in recognition of this President Gotabaya has written to Prime Minister Modi for help.

In exchange for a hand of goodwill Sri Lanka has to perceptibly reciprocate constructively and appease concerns of major countries in the region, but India is irritated over Sri Lanka’s stand on the Eastern Container Terminal (ECT). Top-notch Indian politicians fumed at the beginning and wanted to lodge their  protest. The Indian High commissioner in Sri Lanka was at the receiving end, going to and fro from the Prime Minister’s office and the Presidential Secretariat to convey India’s concerns. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka stood her ground and subsequently offered the West Container Terminal to compensate for the loss. In the meantime, the Prime Minister during discussions with other stakeholders on the ECT issue assured trade unions that the government will not go ahead with the project but that he was not ready to give anything in writing as requested by the trade unions because his word prevails. He told Indian High Commission officials that there was no existing agreement on the ECT between India and Sri Lanka until he became privy to a copy of the agreement. There was however a debate within the government itself on the issue. One school of thought representing more progressive ideas advocated that the ECT should be given to India come what may and that the consequences should be faced thereafter while others took a step back in the face of growing opposition among the Buddhist clergy and trade unions. Internationally, Sri Lanka will find its way to the ‘black list’ of countries if it continues to be on reverse gear as far as international commitments are concerned. Going back on its agreement had irked not only India but Japan too, who in the recent past happened to be the biggest donor for Sri Lanka. On top of all these the government also cancelled the Light Railway Project (LRT) mainly funded by Japan through JICA, the Japanese government’s agency that  delivers official development assistance, with a concessionary loan and a grace period of twelve years. It is important that Sri Lanka has a consistent policy to honour its international obligations whichever government holds power. The idea was that Sri Lanka could still make amends to pacify India’s concerns and hence moved fast to cancel Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s proposed address to Parliament during his visit to Sri Lanka starting 23 February. India was quite apprehensive about the matter since they feared that Prime Minister Khan would seize the opportunity to refer to the Kashmir issue which is sensitive to India and would cause sheer embarrassment internationally. Knowing the fall out could lead to another diplomatic spat between the two countries, Sri Lanka moved cautiously to hide the cancellation under the cover of the Covid19 pandemic. Quite interestingly the Speaker has reportedly said that he cannot ensure a full house for Prime Minister Khan’s address to Parliament owing to the rampant pandemic with its new variant detected in Sri Lanka and as a result, it will not be possible to accommodate Prime Minister Khan’s address at this juncture.

Pakistan too is important for Sri Lanka since it is one of the countries that came forward on numerous occasions to help Sri Lanka during the separatist war,providing much needed military training and weaponry. This was at a time when the West and India rejected Sri Lanka’s request for ammunition to fight an unabated war with the LTTE. The naval exercises with Pakistan in the Arabian Sea was in fact to maintain this closeness. As a gesture of extending goodwill, Pakistan welcomed the Sri Lankan move to allow the burial of those who die from Covid -19 instead of compulsory cremation after Prime Minister Rajapakse’s purported statement in Parliament that burials will be allowed. The GoSL made cremations compulsory on the assumption that it will pollute the groundwater and that Covid 19 could be transmitted through the water tables, a claim which has not been scientifically proven.

However, the Prime Minister’s word may not stand as an authentic pronouncement at all times.  He failed to root his feet steadfastly when it came to the issue of burials for Covid 19 victims and his position was contradicted by State Minister SudharshiniFeranandopulle, putting the Prime Minister in an awkward position. The matter has now reached the portals of the United Nations where Sri Lanka will face the consequences as a country with primitive instincts when there is no scientifically proven basis to deny Muslims their right to burials.

Besides all these hullabaloo Sri Lanka as a developing nation is facing severe economic hardships partly because of the Covid 19 pandemic and seemingly imprudent measures taken by the government as they rode back to power in the latter part of 2019. The government’s unpopularity is amply evident now being unable to even effectively restrict the spread of the pandemic. On the economic front the government can go on for some time printing currency notes but  inflation is likely to skyrocket. Rating agencies have also painted a dismal picture dismissing Sri Lanka’s claims that the growth rate was considerably high amidst the Covid 19 pandemic and other economic ills.

Under these circumstances, the country doesn’t have many options but ask the International Monitory Fund to step in and reschedule the massive loans it has taken. As State minister Nivard Cabral indicated a few days ago Sri Lanka is heading for difficult times.

Meanwhile, the political project of Wimal Weerawansstoo is causing havoc within the precincts of the government. The quite untimely declaration made by Wimal Weerawansa that the Executive President should play a lead role in the party is by far a calculated attempt aimed at creating rumblings among the rank and file of the SLPP.

It is testing times for Weerawansa or an acid test to measure his acceptance among the constituent members of the SLPP. There have been some who could not firmly lodge their feet in the Rajapaksa political quicksand who made a foray to Weerawansa’s cluttering and limping bandwagon.

Political analysts believe that it was a long-range shot fired by Weerawansa expecting a barrage of salvos, on the contrary, he made one point clear through innuendos which is that he cannot wait too long to climb the ladder to reach the upper echelons of governance.

Weerawansa’s out and out thinking is that time is right to strike but has been sadly mistaken since what he was doing all the time was to try and blow his image up to a dimension which is out of proportion.

Not only the politicians around the country but the middle class educated populace will not take it kindly or make changes to their thinking that Weerawansa could be the most dangerous or unsuitable individual to climb the ladder to reach higher strata of governance. At a time where people are overtly tired of the present set of politicians, Weerawansa’s dreams may come a cropper.

His assertion about the leadership hurt many, resulting in a barrage of vitriolic criticism directed at him from other ranks of the divide.  A few including several monks, mostly ultra-nationalists, joined the Weerawansa bandwagon.

Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda Thero is one who played a dominant role in defending Weerawansa’s mission. Ven. Ananda Thero has been hovering in the Sri Lankan political sphere with some apprehension for quite a considerable period now. President J.R Jayewardene on many an occasion posed questions over his credibility as a Buddhist monk giving leadership to a nurses union. Jayawardene’s assertionirked the Ven. monk making him a virulent opponent of the UNP until President Premadasa took over leadership of the party. Many opponents of the UNP saw a window of opportunity in the Premadasa administration since many believed he was a product of the common man in the country. Ven. Ananda Therowho had some bitter experiences with the Jayawardeneadministration strived hard to keep himself afloat in mainstream of politics.  The nurses union was an effective tool and stimulus to keep him occupied and propel him into the political limelight. His political journey was a long-lasting one through the eras of many political leaders up to Mahinda Rajapksa where he found a permanent berth to anchor himself.

On many issues, he voiced his opinion and became a bugbear for the UNP led Yahapalanaya government. The only tolerable leader for them from within the Yahapalanaya outfit was Karu Jayasuriya who refrained from playing politics due to his responsibilities as the Speaker of the House. During the Yahapalanaya period spanning little over four and a half years, Ven. Ananda became an icon who could smother “Yahaapalanayas” tactical antics in governance. Hence, Ven. Ananda became an icon who was much sought after by the opposition.

There were politicians of the calibre of Mahinda Rajapaksa who accepted him with open arms after Mahinda Rajapaksa took over the reins as the leader of the SLPP.  Ven. Ananda Thero was instrumental in providing logistical support for Mahinda Rajapaksa to ride back to power after his unexpected fall in 2015.

When Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was elevated to the hot seat of the Presidency she harbouredreservations about the involvement of clergy in politics following her bitter experience of her father’s untimely death in the hands of yellow-clad clergymen. The political revival within the confines of the temple emerged and grew to a larger magnitude as a result of SWRD Bandaranaike mostly relying on their clout as a catalyst to entice the rural folk.

Coming back to the present-day context it is a similar phenomenon but in a different form.  The clergymen who helped the government to ride back to power with an overwhelming majority have turned their back,making uncomfortable remarks about government actions and giving fodder to those aspiring to be a challenge to the present set up.

Weerawansa’s outcry during the ECT issue did not augur well with the President or the rest in the government, though Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is trying to maintain a relatively cordial relationship with him. However, the Basil Rajapaksa factor within the SLPP works day and night to push Weerawansa to the political wilderness as soon as possible. Many ministers and backbenchers have pledged support to Basil Rajapaksa to bring about a change in the SLPP sans Weerawansa whose fate is hanging by a thread.  The objective of the Basil Rajapaksa group is to make him a political orphan unless he yields to the pressure exerted by the Basil group in the SLPP. Weerawansa’s political future looks dismal without the SLPP. The moment he is ousted the people who are hovering around him will gradually take a political trajectory which will ensure their survival. Weerawansa will be dropped like a hot potato.

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