In the past, the resolutions passed by the UN Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka have generated huge amounts of political controversy. Beginning with the first in 2009, a few weeks after the end of the war, they were directed against the former government for having fought the war in the way it did, with high levels of civilian casualties and human rights violations. These resolutions were strenuously resisted by the government, which also utilized the resolutions as yet another opportunity to mobilize popular sentiment in its favour. Prior to 2015, every session of the UNHRC in Geneva was an occasion for a whipping up of a sense of national crisis and accompanying nationalism. There was certainly a lot of sympathy for the government within the country, when it made its case that it was being unfairly persecuted for ending the military threat to the unity of the country from the LTTE.
While the former government was able to use the successive Geneva resolutions of 2012-14 to consolidate its nationalist credentials amongst the general population, it lost the sympathy of the international community, especially the countries aligned to the Western bloc. Sri Lanka was repeatedly defeated when it tried to contest those resolutions. As a result, Sri Lanka’s image as a post-war society that respected human rights took a dip. Some of the Western countries even had travel advisories that described the country as risky to travel to. This had repercussions on the country’s economic development. It made it more difficult for Sri Lanka to attract the foreign investments it needed to boost the economy.
The present government has had to deal with this unhelpful legacy of the past. At the end of 2014 it appeared that Sri Lanka was heading in the direction of economic and political sanctions. It had already lost the GSP Plus tariff concessions from the EU. There was concern that there could be other countries applying unilateral sanctions. The government’s decision to co-sponsor rather than acquiesce or oppose the UNHRC resolution of 2015 helped it to become a partner to the new resolution. This led to a downscaling of demands placed on the country from the international community. But it also created expectations on behalf of the war affected people that their problems would be resolved soon due to the partnership between the Sri Lankan government and the international community. This time around, in 2017 too, Sri Lanka is planning to co-sponsor the latest UNHRC resolution. But this time the expectations are much less.
The government has requested a two year extension to meet the commitments made in the co-sponsored resolution of 2015. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid bin Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein has pointed in his report on Sri Lanka’s performance to many unfulfilled promises. These include the main components of the transitional justice process—truth seeking, accountability, reparations and institutional reforms. The government has not yet operationalised the four mechanisms it promised in October 2015—the truth seeking commission, the office of missing persons, the office of reparations and the special courts. Although an Office of Missing Persons was passed into law by Parliament in August last year, it has yet to be operationalised. Despite these significant failures, it appears that the extension sought by the government will be granted by the UNHRC.
The new government’s readiness to stop confronting the international community on the issue of UNHRC resolutions reflects the change that has taken place at its highest levels. There has been a change of direction in which one of the most commendable changes is that ethnic and religious minorities are no longer singled out for hostile propaganda and violent action by government leaders. The hate campaigns go on at the local level, which are difficult to snuff out immediately, but they have no support from the highest levels of the polity. Therefore the hate campaigns currently lack the energy to burst forth as mass campaigns. They have been localized. On the other hand, those at the receiving end of the hate campaigns are often dismayed by the lack of leadership given by the government leadership to suppress the hate campaigns and their campaigners. Similarly the victims of the war are greatly distressed at the slowness of implementation of their basic grievances, such as not knowing where their missing family members are, and seeing their lands continuing to be occupied by the Sri Lankan military.
At the root of the problem is a basic fact that Sri Lanka continues to be an ethnically divided society. This is not a new phenomenon. This division existed even prior to Independence from the British in 1948, as manifested in the Pan Sinhala Board of Ministers in 1936 (that had no Tamils or Muslims) and the 50:50 demand of 1939 (which sought to equalize the numbers of Sinhalese and minority MPs in parliament). While the top government leadership today can be considered to be liberal and non-racial minded, their vision of what political form a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society should take is not clear. They have yet to spell out their vision. This is evident in the stalled constitutional reform process where the government leadership has yet to set out its own position. In the absence of a clear vision they will not champion the cause of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious polity and combat the ethnic and religious polarizations in society.
There is a dichotomy between the North and East and the rest of the country on the issue of the UNHRC resolution. Although the ongoing session of the UNHRC is not exciting much public passion in the rest of the country, in the former war zones of the North and East, and amongst the Tamil Diaspora, the passion still continues. Many of the people living there have been direct victims of the war that lasted nearly three decades. They look to the process unfolding in Geneva to obtain justice for them and for their kin. They are hopeful that international intervention will resolve their problems and bring justice to them. The problem with their hopes is that there are many countries that are far worse than Sri Lanka in terms of human rights violations where the international community has done little or nothing.
A Joint Appeal made by Tamil Civil Society Organisations, Political Parties and Trade Unions calls on the UNHRC to deny the government the time it seeks and to conduct an independent international investigation instead. They see a repetition of broken promises by successive Sri Lankan governments where it concerns political solutions to the ethnic conflict. However, Sri Lanka is likely to get another two years. While agreeing to this two year extension, the Global Tamil Forum, a leading diaspora organization led by Fr S J Emmanuel, has requested the UNHRC to formally ensure that Sri Lanka makes a time bound delivery commitment to implement requirements of resolution 30/1 in full, without any exceptions. Whether or not this is included in the new resolution of the UNHRC, as a confidence building measure and an expression of its commitment, the government can set itself a plan and timeframe with regard to the implementation of its promises.