In its response last week the Sri Lanka government stated that even as it withdrew from co-sponsorship of Resolution 30/1, it remained committed to achieve reconciliation, accountability and human rights within the framework of the Sri Lankan Constitution. It also said that this would be through a domestically designed and executed process in line with the government’s policy framework. It stated “We urge all parties once again to recognize the realities on the ground, and appreciate this approach of focusing on deliverable measures of reconciliation – which is backed by a people’s mandate and is in the interest of Sri Lanka and its people, instead of opting to continue with a framework driven externally that has failed to deliver genuine reconciliation for over four and half years.”
The assertion that there would be a domestically designed and executed reconciliation process echoed what the government said in February of this year when it first announced its withdrawal from the UNHRC resolution. On that occasion, however, the Sri Lankan government delegation’s assessment of the ground situation was more conducive to the formulation of a domestically designed reconciliation process. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena made a speech in Geneva which was an affirmation of the ground reality of Sri Lanka as a multi ethnic and multi religious country. If a new government initiative for reconciliation is to be successful it is essential that it be a policy that obtains the support and acceptance of the ethnic and religious minorities.
The Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva said “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multicultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people. It is therefore our strong conviction that the aforementioned actions within the framework of Sri Lanka’s domestic priorities and policies, are not only realistic but also deliverable. We call upon all stakeholders, within and outside this august body, to cooperate with Sri Lanka in this endeavor.” This is a position that could give rise to a credible and mutually acceptable reconciliation process within the country.
The ground reality is that Sri Lanka’s population consists of different ethnicities and religions and the minorities among them comprise around 30 percent of the population, which is a substantial amount. However, with elections looming and less than a month away political leaders who are seeking election would be reluctant to publicly admit to this reality. They are aware that majorities in most countries see the polity as representing their culture and values predominantly. This is not only a specifically Sri Lankan problem but a global problem. But the problem is that although more than four months has elapsed since Foreign Minister Gunawardena’s reassuring intervention in Geneva, there has been no attempt to provide a wider frame within which the reconciliation process could be restarted. Instead the minority communities are seeing many significant civil appointments being made in which the beneficiaries are security forces personnel, both retired and serving, which brings back to them memories of the war-times past.
The former government’s reconciliation process had components that looked at the human rights issues coming from the past and ensuring justice and providing compensation as well as finding a political solution through changes of law and the constitution. With elections approaching no party that seeks the votes of the ethnic majority would wish to deal with these issues. The previous government’s reconciliation process was viewed with suspicion by the ethnic majority as designed to punish those who had won the war against the LTTE in order to placate the ethnic minorities and international community. Such suspicions were fed by the opposition parties and nationalist groups who claimed that the division of the country and the loss of national sovereignty was imminent.
In the face of strong opposition from the political parties that were opposed to it, the former government did not implement the pledges it had made in the UNHRC resolution that it had co-sponsored. It was unwilling to take on the challenge of implementing the provisions of the resolution with any vigour. As a result, the forces of reaction got revived on the one hand, and inertia set in on the other. The delays get protracted. Even significant structural achievements such as the Office on Missing Persons that was established in 2017 and the Office for Reparations set up in 2019 were not capacitated with economic and failed to generate support even from the ranks of the government that has passed the necessary legislation.
In a similar manner the new constitution that the then government sought to introduce ended up getting orphaned without the political support of that government and got totally stuck in its final phase. This was most unfortunate as a great deal of preliminary work had been done and substantial consensus had been generated within the parliamentary sub-committees that had been set up for the purpose of jointly formulating constitutional reform proposals for different sections of the constitution. The problem came not from the parliamentarians who were willing to participate and cooperate with each other across party divisions at the beginning. But when the top political leaderships of the parties began to take different sides, this cooperation also ended with a resulting cessation of progress.
On the positive side, there was a broad consensus among all the parties during the previous constitutional reform process that the matters that were being debated were important to the country, and needed to be discussed at length. There was agreement that this is the time to address problems that cannot be neglected any longer. The challenge will be to bridge the gaps on some key issues and to obtain the support of the political leaderships of the main political parties of all communities. Both in term of dealing with the past and achieving constitutional reform, the essential elements will be participatory decision making that brings the ethnic and religious majority and minorities together. Delays in finding a political solution by major political parties blaming each other does not console those who await a solution, and finally seek alternatives elsewhere when their confidence in governments erodes with time.