It is important that the government acts quickly to restore the people’s confidence that it is able to turn things around and solve problems. The sharp depreciation of the rupee against the dollar and the prospects of more depreciation taking place, in the days to come will generate price rises that the general population cannot afford to bear. Already the Covid-induced job losses and the price increases that have been taking place have weakened the people’s capacity to bear with more losses of income due to the falling rate of exchange of the local currency. So far there has been no mass mobilisation of protestors but this can change. The main Opposition party, the SJB, headed by the Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa, will be commencing its mass agitation this week. They have much to agitate against- apart from the economic crisis, there is the erosion of the Rule of Law, increased military presence in public institutions, and unwillingness to hold elections when they are due.
Adding to the government’s discomfiture, UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s report has been very critical of its implementation of the recommendations made in Resolution 46/1 of March 2021. The recommendations in that resolution had the issue of accountability for human rights violations and war crimes at its centre but were not limited to that. They also included, ensuring the drafting process for a new Constitution is based on broad and inclusive consultations, entrenches the independence of judiciary and key national institutions such as the HRCSL, and advances the devolution of political authority, which is integral to reconciliation and the full enjoyment of human rights by all members of its population; avoiding reliance on the military to run civilian affairs and steps to reduce the influence of the military on civilian life. The report also noted the role some of those who are implicated in human rights cases play in high positions in the government.
The government’s preparations for the ongoing UNHRC session did not focus on these issues but on other issues. One was to amend the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The government took pride in the fact that it had proposed amendments that were approved by the Cabinet for the first time in 43 years. However, these amendments were deemed insufficient by human rights organisations, both within and outside the country, and by the UN Human Rights Commissioner. Another initiative of the government was to reactivate several institutions that had become virtually defunct with the change of government in 2019. These included the Office on Missing Persons, the Office for Reparations and the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation. The government also transferred the NGO Secretariat from the purview of the Ministry of Defence to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The problem with the government’s response to the concerns of the UNHRC and human rights organisations is that it has not really changed the situation on the ground very much. This was seen when in the run up to the UNHRC session, a civic activist, who is campaigning for justice for Easter bombing victims,was almost bundled into a white van by members of the security forces. This crude attempt at silencing a critic was thwarted because the activist was able to livestream the entire episode on social media, much to the consternation of his would-be-abductors. The transfer of the NGO Secretariat to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not stopped the surveillance and questioning of civic groups and NGOs by the state’s intelligence apparatus which continues to treat them as threats to national security. During a recent visit to Jaffna we saw that the government is continuing to act as if the war that ended more than 12 years ago was still alive in their minds and on the ground.
At Omanthai, on the A9 highway, where the last checkpoint used to be, and the no-man’s zone commenced during the war, there is still a big barrier placed across the road which vehicles have to zig-zag through along with armed security force personnel present. At tourist sites in Jaffna, such as at the Nilavarai bottomless well, there are military personnel on duty with guns. Both of these are unnecessary and reflect a government that continues to be in a war frame of mind even though the people of Jaffna have no thought of war on their minds but only want to live in peace with dignity and fairness. Near Palali airport large tracts of land continue to be fenced off and denied to the people. The land is covered by over growth into a jungle. It is a pity that a fertile red soil area is abandoned and left uncultivated and unused by the owners. It is necessary that this land should be returned to the people so that they may live and farm it, as it is rightfully their own. Such a move will also contribute to the national economy which is currently facing a food crisis.
The leaks that the government is contemplating forming a national government could pacify public sentiment and give renewed hope that the problems that afflict the country can be dealt with in a better manner. The government has also announced that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will call an all-party conference to discuss the country’s problems and, prior to that, meet with the main Tamil party, the TNA, without whose presence the substance of a national government will be more hollow than hopeful. There is still some doubt as to whether the meeting will actually take place. On more than one occasion in the past two years, the President has promised to talk to the TNA, even fixing a date on one occasion, only to renege on the promise for no good reason. If the meeting between the President and TNA does take place, it will be a positive development. There is no better way to resolve problems than through face-to- face engagement, dialogue and mutual accommodation. The unknown factor here is the President’s own thinking in the context of the government position as the position of the TNA is well known.
The small numbers of ethnic and religious minorities in decision-making bodies of the state at multiple levels have eroded their confidence. The failure of the government leadership to meet with the TNA and find ways to bridge the gap between them has led to a widening gap, and eventually to a situation where the government is being forced to deal with the international community instead. The pressure is coming from multiple fronts, from the UN Human Rights Council on war-time accountability, from the EU on the Prevention of Terrorism Act and from India on the political solution to the Tamil national problem. While these are the respective focuses of those three parties, their negative assessment of the situation in the country is more all-encompassing and includes issues of governance and rule of law. The government has been taking reassurance from its observation that 31 of 45 countries that spoke at the UNHRC session had been supportive of Sri Lanka. However, it is reported that only nine of the countries that spoke in defence of Sri Lanka had voting rights at the UNHRC.
The government’s concern would be the next session of the UNHRC this coming September. A decision would be made at this session regarding the follow up to Resolution 46/1. The government would wish to see the end of this process where every four months its progress in terms of human rights and governance is being discussed at the UN. The government would also wish the monitoring mechanism that has been put into place in Geneva brought to an end. However, critics of the government’s performance would call for a new resolution that is even stronger than the present one. Their position has been strengthened by the call of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, in 2019 on behalf of the Catholic Church, that the international investigative mechanism should continue and should deliver justice to the victims of the Easter Sunday bombing.
The announcement that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be calling for an all-party conference and may even form a national government offers the hope that the issues that are being taken to the international arena will be settled within the country itself. The long unresolved problem of a political solution to the ethnic conflict, which includes doing justice to its victims and finding a power sharing mechanism for ethnic minorities who are regional majorities will need to be one area of concentration. The other will be to deal with the current economic problems. The government’s delay in going to the IMF has been explained by its economic decision-makers as due to the concern that IMF conditions for a financial bailout package will impose more burdens on the general population. So is staying where we are. A national government, which implies joint governance with the Opposition in which the ethnic and religious minorities have sufficient and adequate representation, will enable difficult decisions to be made.