With the Zero Draft in circulation there is no longer any doubt that a resolution on Sri Lanka will be presented at the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council later this month. This resolution will be presented by a core group of countries led by the United Kingdom and will be supported by the United States which, though not a current member of the UNHRC, has opted to return to it under the presidency of Joe Biden. This will be a powerful combination for a small country like Sri Lanka to challenge. It does not appear that Sri Lanka will present its own counter resolution. There was perhaps a miscalculation of the waning power of the western countries in the face of the rise of China. The western powers continue to dominate international institutions. The absence of a coherent foreign policy is reflective of the much greater power of the countries that Sri Lanka is having to contend with.
One of the issues that has created internal division in the country is the cremation of those who have succumbed to the Covid virus. This policy of enforced cremations has been most opposed by the Muslim community for whom burial of the dead is a part of their faith. It has also brought international disapproval to the country. The UN Human Rights Commissioner’s January report on Sri Lanka states that “The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted on religious freedom and exacerbated the prevailing marginalisation and discrimination suffered by the Muslim community. The High Commissioner is concerned that the Government’s decision to mandate cremations for all those affected by COVID-19 has prevented Muslims from practicing their own burial religious rites, and has disproportionately affected religious minorities and exacerbated distress and tensions.”
The five day march from the eastern town of Pottuvil to the northern capital of Jaffna, given the name P2P-Pottuvil to Polikandi march, came to a peaceful end having made its point to the people of the north and east and to the international community. The culmination of the march in Jaffna saw large crowds participating. But the point was largely lost in the rest of the country where the focus of attention was on other matters such as Independence Day celebrations. The government needs to do the heeding. The marchers had slogans that, among others called for the need to ascertain the fate of missing persons, to permit events held in their memory and return of land taken over for security purposes during the war. There was also the issue of LTTE suspects who have been held for over a decade without being subjected to legal processes.
Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government that was elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has announced that the government will be entering into an agreement with the Adani Group based in India to offer them 49 percent of the shares in a joint venture company. This joint venture will include Japanese government financing and will manage one of the terminals in Colombo port. The entry of Adani Group into Colombo port has been opposed by a wide coalition of organisations ranging from port workers and left political parties to nationalists and civil society groups. These groups have little in common with each other but on this particular issue they have made common cause and even held joint protests together. The main thrust of their objections is that control over the East Terminal of Colombo port will pass into foreign hands and result in an erosion of Sri Lankan sovereignty.
As the new year dawns the government appears to be moving in the direction of more inclusivity in both domestic and foreign policy. The most contentious domestic political issue over the past nine months, and growing in intensity to include public demonstrations, has been that of the disposal of bodies of persons who succumb to the coronavirus. The Sri Lankan claim to be exceptional in the world in respect of the practice of enforced cremation has been met with the opposition and increasingly public agitation of the Muslim community to whom burial is a matter of religious faith and is a human right guaranteed under the constitution and international law. Until recently the experts in the medical and scientific field consulted by the government and elevated to government committees were adamant in taking the position that burials should not be permitted on safety grounds.
The map of Covid infection in the country is steadily spreading to more remote parts of the country radiating from the Western province which has been the worst affected and the site of origin of the second wave of infection. There was an expectation that the government would institute a lockdown during the final week of the year to prevent people from traveling and celebrating the beginning of a new year. This impression was strengthened by Public Health Inspectors collectively making their disquiet known by calling on the government to order a stop to inter-provincial travel. The government might have been reluctant to put such an inter-provincial travel ban into effect when it is trying to persuade foreign tourists to commence international travel to the country.
The loss of the USD 480 million grant opportunity provided to Sri Lanka by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) was on the cards for some time. The two projects it was meant to implement became too controversial, though on their face they were about promoting economic development. The Transport Project aimed to increase the relative efficiency and capacity of the road network and bus system in the Colombo Metropolitan Region and to reduce the cost of transporting passengers and goods between the central region of the country and ports and markets in the rest of the country. The Land Project was to help the government identify under-utilized state land that might be put to more productive use and maximize rents from lands that the government leases. Both of these projects were interpreted in a negative light to make them a threat to Sri Lanka.
Fear when combined with falsehood and insular inward-looking nationalism make a potent combination that can lead to the brutalization of society in the short term and possible disaster in the longer term. Sri Lanka is gaining international notoriety on this account. The issue of enforced cremation of those who die of Covid, or are suspected of it as a possible cause of death, has shocked the sensibilities of the world to the extent that four UN Special Rapporteurs have called on Sri Lanka to permit burial of such fatalities. Significantly, these were the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; the Special Rapporteur on minority issues; and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.
The initial optimism that accompanied President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ascension to the presidency is wearing thin in the face of the seemingly insurmountable problems he has to deal with including the economic crisis and most unexpectedly the Covid spread. But there are also the more traditional issues of abuse of power, corruption and inter-community tensions that are raising their heads. The recent prison riot, which has seen brutality, is what people remember of the past and must not recur under a government that cares for its people regardless of their stations in life or communities. When he won the presidential election in November 2019 there was a great deal of hope that the president was a leader with strong convictions who would immediately take charge and put things right in an efficient manner.