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Political Commentary

During the period of the previous government May 18 became a day of tension in the North. The previous government celebrated the war victory over the LTTE in the South of the country, while prohibiting any public memorial services for those who died in the last battles in the North. The report last week that police in the North had obtained a court order to put on hold a commemoration event in Mullivaikkal scheduled for May 18, the day the war ended, therefore took the centre stage of public attention in the North. It seemed that the prohibition was for all commemoration services for the victims of the war and that the past had returned to haunt the present. However, the court order was with regard to a single commemorative event. It was not a general directive that prohibited all commemorative activities.

There was some uncertainty whether Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka to join the country in its celebration of the International Day of Vesak would turn embarrassing to the host government. Prior to his visit nationalist politicians and nationalist civil society leaders from the ethnic majority community called for black flag protests. This was against what they called Indian intervention. Two controversial matters currently being negotiated between the two countries are the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) and the Trincomalee harbor project that revolves around the lease of oil tanks. ETCA has generated formidable opposition amongst sections of the local business community and professionals led by medical doctors of the government medical doctors association who fear that they will not be able to withstand Indian competition. Those who sought to give an ulterior motive to the Indian premier’s visit were also able to draw on memories of the Indian intervention of the 1980s that contributed to the strengthening of Tamil militancy in the country.

The Joint Opposition was successful in political and psychological terms when it succeeded in ensuring large scale participation of its supporters at its May Day event. Galle Face Green, which covers 18 acres of land, is perhaps the largest open air venue for public events in the country. In the past this has been the venue allocated to the Pope to conduct religious services as was last done in 2015. Members of the Joint Opposition claimed that the crowd at the May Day rally of the Joint Opposition was even larger than those who came to attend the Pope’s event. But there was also a difference. The vast majority of those who came to see the Pope did so at their own expense. They were neither bused nor provided with meals and drinks by the Church.

Sri Lanka secured a timely victory in the European Parliament when a motion to deny the country of the benefit of the GSP Plus tariff concession was defeated by a large majority of 436 to 119. There were doubts about the outcome of the vote as a visiting EU delegation last month issued a critical report on the country situation. The delegation had focused on economic and labour issues and found there were many deficiencies in the law and in its implementation on the ground. They reported that they had found a number of workers who have been objects of labour rights violations, including harassment to trade unions, illegal dismissal of trade union leaders, sexual harassment and labour rights violations within the free trade zones. The report has also touched on shortcomings on the enforcement on other human rights issues, in particular the use of torture and the rights of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities.

The tragedy at Meetotamulla, in the outskirts of Colombo, where a massive garbage dump came crashing down on people living on its perimeter, has generated an outpouring of support for the victims and frustration about the failure of successive governments to deal with the problem. About 40 persons are confirmed dead and several more remain unaccounted for giving rise to speculation that the actual death toll may be even higher. Unfortunately, this was a tragedy that could be seen to be coming. Those living in the vicinity of the garbage dump had been agitating for many years about the dangers posed to them by the prospect of disease and also by the stench but to no avail. In the meantime the mountain of garbage simply grew and grew and grew.

Countries re-emerging from decades of violent internal conflict are encouraged, sometimes against their will, into following an internationally prescribed trajectory of transitional justice. This is a concept that has taken root within the UN and international human rights systems after decades of being honed by practitioners and academics in the field. The basic idea of transitional justice is that accountability and punishment are necessary if there is to be sustainable peace, democracy and justice in those cases of protracted conflict in which there have been large scale violations of human rights.

The International Women of Courage award to Sandya Ekneligoda by the US government, and presented to her by First Lady Melina Trump, was a symbolic affirmation that the fate of victims of enforced disappearances is an international priority that will not be negated by either time or official denials. Sandya Ekneligoda’s husband, Prageeth, a journalist, disappeared in 2010 just a few days before the presidential election that saw President Mahinda Rajapaksa win a second term of office. Prageeth backed the opposition. When he went missing many motives were attributed to it, including going to France, working with the LTTE and gathering evidence of financial crimes of government leaders. But whatever the motivations of those who made Prageeth go missing, his enforced disappearance like those of thousands of others is a heinous crime. It is an international crime that all countries of the world are duty bound to prosecute by virtue of the international covenants they have signed.

In the public perception there is a sense of drift in the constructive activities of the government on all fronts. President Maithripala Sirisena has been attempting to overcome this sense of drift by political means. He has been having public programmes that enhance his own visibility. An example would be the SLFP Youth Convention where he expressed his intentions of holding the much delayed local government elections this year. He also gave leadership to a public exhibition of locally manufactured products at the BMICH which attracted large crowds who were able to make purchases at relatively low rates. However, his oft repeated pledge to have a cabinet reshuffle does not appear to be reaching fruition.

The government achieved its main goal at the UN Human Rights Council at the session just completed in March. It was able to obtain a two year extension to deliver on the promise it made at a previous session of the UNHRC in October 2015. There is a consensus that the government’s performance has been inadequate. The government itself has not denied this. Not one of the four reconciliation mechanisms that the government promised to establish are yet operational. Only one of them, the Office of Missing Persons, has received parliamentary assent, but it is still only on paper. The OMP has yet to be operationalized. In the meantime, the fate of missing persons continues to remain as unknown as it was 18 months ago when the government promised to set up an Office of Missing Persons which would be tasked with the mission of ascertaining the whereabouts of those still missing or what actually happened to them.

The draft resolution on Sri Lanka that is currently before the UN Human Rights Council gives Sri Lanka the additional two years that the government sought to deliver on commitments made 18 months ago. The extended time frame to be granted to Sri Lanka reflects the confidence that the international community reposes in the good faith of the government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. It also reflects the absence of other viable options with regard to hastening the transitional justice process in Sri Lanka. Transitional justice as mandated by the UN system consists of truth seeking, accountability through courts of law, reparations and institutional reforms to ensure that there will not be recurrence of human rights violations.