Political Commentary

When President Maithripala Sirisena first took up the challenge of tackling the country’s drug problem its critics saw it as an idiosyncratic exercise that would soon fizzle out. The president’s championing of the death penalty made it seem to be more an individual rather than as a collective position of the government. Although Sri Lanka has had the death penalty in its laws, and public opinion surveys show popular backing for it, the death penalty has not been implemented for over four decades. The Buddhist ethos that is dominant in the country is one in which the taking of life is not condoned. In addition, the country has ratified international agreements in which the spirit is to protect human life under all circumstances.

As anticipated, the latest UN Human Rights Council Resolution on Sri Lanka, 40/1 of March 2019, was a rollover of Resolution 30/1 of 2015. Sri Lanka was given its second two year extension, the previous extension having been given in March 2017. The latest extension contains appreciation for what Sri Lanka has achieved since it committed itself to implementing the pledges made in October 2015. The resolution recognizes and welcomes “the strong role played by democratic institutions in Sri Lanka in the peaceful resolution of the political situation that arose in Sri Lanka from October to December 2018…the establishment of the Office on Missing Persons in September 2017 and the appointment of its commissioners in February 2018, and the assumption of its work to fully implement its mandate” and notes other steps taken “including the progress made towards establishing an office on reparations and the submission to cabinet of a concept paper on a bill to establish a truth and reconciliation commission.”

The presentation of the Report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’ will take place at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on 20 March 2019. Some of the recommendations contained in this report are contentious ones. They will not be viewed favourably by the majority of people in Sri Lanka. One of these calls for the setting up of a hybrid court to look into war crimes allegations. Such hybrid courts, which include international judges, are set up where the justice system (and the country itself) has largely collapsed, which is not the case in Sri Lanka. Another recommendation calls on the international community to apply the principle of universal jurisdiction on Sri Lankans accused of crimes such as torture, enforced disappearance and war crimes.

The report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights would give an indication of the forthcoming decision of the UN Human Rights Council with regards to its resolution on Sri Lanka. The report is primarily a fact based one. Almost every assertion made is backed by evidence. Particularly damning are the large number of cases given in which serious human rights violations and crimes took place, but which have got stalled somewhere or other in the legal system. Examples would be the murder of Wasim Thajudeen, Sri Lanka’s Rugby captain, and Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper. There are some assertions however that can be contested. One such is the assertion that the security forces, when they withdraw from land they have occupied, destroy the buildings of the people and leave behind only a flattened landscape for the people to return to.

Although decisive presidential elections are only nine months away political mobilization is not taking place at the mass level at the present time. This accounts for the fact that the main sideshow for the past several weeks is about the detection of large consignments of narcotics and the arrest of drug dealers, most of whom appear to be the agents of others who have still to be apprehended. There is the added distraction of a parliamentarian going public and alleging that several of his fellow parliamentarians are themselves taking drugs. Instead of mass mobilization for political victory, the political meetings being organised are on a small scale and meant for party cadres who will take the propaganda messages to the people when the time comes.

The commencement of the UN Human Rights Council session this week has prompted the government to give renewed attention to post-war issues to which the international community has given its attention. President Maithripala Sirisena has said that Sri Lanka is considering withdrawing its co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution at the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council which wants the government to address accountability issues, including alleged violations of human rights during the final phase of the military operations to defeat the LTTE. The president had earlier promoted the idea prior to attending the UN General Assembly last September that Sri Lanka should withdraw from its commitments to the UNHRC resolution that was co-sponsored by the government. On the other side of the divide, a hartal and shutdown of Tamil areas in the North and East is taking place to protest against the government’s delay in implementing its Geneva commitments.

President Maithripala Sirisena has been joined by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and by other opposition members in denouncing the institution of the Constitutional Council and the independent commissions established under the 19th Amendment. They have attributed many ill effects as flowing from these institutions. These include repeatedly defying the president’s wishes, being corrupt, creating chaos, being partial to members of minority religions and even of being culpable for the death of Sri Lankan soldiers on a peacekeeping mission on behalf of the UN. Underlying these criticisms is their frustration that the power of elected politicians is being restricted.

One of the fallouts of the political crisis that occurred towards the end of last year in October was the mobilization of civil society groups that engaged in discussion and debate about the constitutional propriety of the president’s decision to sack the prime minister and dissolve parliament. As the new prime minister and his government took swift action to take control and oust their rivals from all official positions, the president’s decision seemed irreversible in political terms, but was reversed by the judiciary through reference to the constitution. This created a new interest in the constitution and its importance in the governance of the country. This interest continues four months later.

Sri Lanka enters its 71st year of Independence with political uncertainty in the air. The only certainty is that 2019 will be a year of elections. Presidential elections have to be held in November. There is a likelihood that provincial and general elections will be held either before or soon after the presidential elections depending on the calculations of the government that is in power.

The issue of the Leader of the Opposition’s position once again came to the fore when it was brought up in parliament last week by TNA leader R Sampanthan. This issue seem to have been resolved when Speaker Karu Jayasuriya issued a ruling earlier this month that the UPFA’s Mahinda Rajapaksa would be the opposition leader. Parliament, the media and majority opinion seem to have taken this decision in their stride as the right and proper one. Certainly the UPFA is much larger in numbers than the TNA, both in parliament and outside parliament, and more vociferous in their opposition to whatever the government is doing.