There is a possibility of change again. For the first time since the change of government in 2019 the government will be going to Geneva to discuss issues of human rights within the parameters set by the UN system and without seeking to reject them. With newly appointed Foreign Minister Prof GL Peiris at the helm, the government has prepared a 13 page report which engages with the major issues of concern to the international community that has an interest in human rights issues. It deals with the accusations of non-implementation of key elements in the resolution and seeks to point out that some of the main undertakings are either being implemented or nearing completion. It takes considerable pains to explain its progress in many of the areas highlighted in recent UN reports.
One of the areas highlighted in the more recent UN reports has been the shrinking space for civil society. Since the Easter Sunday bombing during the period of the last government, the surveillance and monitoring of NGOs throughout the country, but particularly in the North and East, has got more intense. With the advent of the new government later in 2019, this increased further to the extent that NGO workers in the East have complained privately that they were being considered akin to terrorists. Other NGO workers from far districts have been asked to come to Colombo along with their office files to be questioned by intelligence operatives from different branches of the security forces. NGO leaders in Colombo have been visited in their homes by persons in plainclothes claiming to be from the intelligence branches of the police.
The government’s decision in 2020 to withdraw from UNHRC Resolution 30/1 and from the internationally mandated reconciliation process that it mandated initially led some government agencies to take a particularly hostile position vis a vis civil society organisations that are involved in peace, human rights and governance work rather than in economic development work. They were portrayed as being anti-national and their work was openly criticized in public gatherings summoned by them. Efforts by NGOs to engage with the government or to even obtain meetings with them were rebuffed or ignored. The Covid pandemic, however, presented a window of opportunity which the CSO Collective for Covid Relief utilized to engage with the government and obtain its facilitation for the provision of humanitarian relief.
The looming catastrophe of a withdrawal of GSP Plus tariff privileges by the European Union has provided another opportunity for engagement with the government by civil society organisations. The government needs to demonstrate its commitment to human rights, and one of these is to facilitate the work of civil society. The grant of the GSP Plus tariff privilege is dependent solely on the government’s fulfilling of its human rights obligations. Sri Lanka lost the GSP Plus once before in 2010 under similar circumstances. The EU identified significant shortcomings in respect of Sri Lanka’s implementation of three UN human rights conventions relevant for benefits under the scheme and imposed a temporary suspension which lasted seven years. The economic and social cost of losing this benefit was high as it led to hundreds of factories and businesses having to close down putting tens of thousands out of jobs. At the present juncture with the Covid pandemic wrecking the economy it is incumbent upon the government to do its utmost to save the GSP Plus.
In its 13 page report to the UN Human Rights Commissioner the government has mentioned that “For decades civil society has been an important partner for Sri Lanka’s progress in matters related to social and human development as well as human rights issues. We have maintained an active interaction with civil society on our international human rights reporting obligations. In further pursuance of this HE the President has held a consultation with a broad range of civil society (Sri Lankan Collective for Consensus) on 3 August 2021 and received their concerns with regard to ongoing issues.” In the past two months this same group has met with several high ranking members of the government. At each of these meetings they have presented the issues that they see as standing in the way of national reconciliation. The problem with the government’s presentation of its relationship with civil society is that the issues they present need resolution and implementation on the ground or at least a start being made to implement them.
The issues that the SLCC brought to the attention of the government include the misuse of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the postponement of provincial council elections for more than three years, the continuing anguish of families of missing persons from the war days, the harassment and surveillance of NGOs and the targeting of minorities for unfavourable treatment. The willingness of the government leaders to accept the memorandums that were submitted to them and to listen to the critiques of their conduct is a new phenomenon. It suggests a change of approach if not of heart. However, there is presently a great deal of skepticism within civil society of the genuineness of the government’s dialogue with the SLCC and the prospects of the changes sought being made manifest on the ground.
At their last meeting with Foreign Minister Prof GL Peiris, the members of the SLCC group brought up the issue of regressive actions on the ground. These include continuing detentions under the PTA even though the government has pledged to bring this law into conformity with international standards. But this has not allayed concerns that the present engagement with individuals from civil society will undermine the efforts to hold the government accountable. It is feared that this is merely a government strategy to get off the hook at a time when the international community is getting ready to act against the government with a heavy hand. Whether such punitive action by the international community will serve any positive purpose is open to question.
The price of civil society engagement with the government can be high. There is the possibility of retaliation if the process of engagement should break down. So far the civil society engagement with the government has been based on the premise that these are the first steps in a sincere attempt at a mutual search for reconciliation. This will be borne out by the real changes that take place on the ground. Those in civil society who engage with the government do so recognising that the government has the democratic legitimacy that comes from having won elections. It also has a sufficient majority in parliament to take the country on a path to inter-community justice and reconciliation that has long eluded the country. This is the latest opportunity in a string of lost opportunities. Civil society cannot give up trying to get the government do what it should, like the task of Sisyphus, of pushing the boulder up the mountain with the hope that this time he will succeed.