The government has sent its “A Team” to Geneva to face the international human rights community and the UN Human Rights Commission. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has raised concerns about the lack of accountability in Sri Lanka. In her report, Bachelet said human rights violations and abuses were continuing to spread throughout the country. She attributed that to the failure of the government to carry out necessary reforms to its legal, institutional and security sectors. She said the government had shown some willingness to initiate reforms. However, she said the steps taken so far have done little to address past human rights violations or redress the harm done to victims.
The multiplicity of problems facing the government and the country and to which solutions are nowhere in sight, is undermining the government’s credibility. Renewing its electoral mandate seems to be a strategy that the government is contemplating. The mandate obtained by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the presidential election was seen as paving the way for a new era in disciplined and development-oriented governance. There were high expectations from him. The massive election victory that the government obtained, both at the presidential and general elections appeared to clear the decks for sweeping change. The president’s military background and successful track record as Defense Secretary, gave people the confidence in change that would benefit the country. But today it is seen that hardly anything has changed. Corruption is rife and, worse still, the government is not in a problem solving mode.
Every Independence Day there is the hope that the country will turn the corner and reach the potential it had in 1948. Leonard Woolf, the British Civil Servant who wrote “Village in the Jungle” saw the newly independent country as a future “Switzerland of the East” if it found a way to share political power amongst its different ethnicities and regions in the way that Switzerland had. But once again Independence Day reminded the country of the seemingly permanent divide that exists in the country without getting erased with the passage of time and the gaining of wisdom. The divides showed starkly on this occasion. The event was boycotted by several of the most important national actors which demonstrates a political polarization that the government has been unable to bridge.
The government’s Adhikaranabhimani programme went to the North of the country last week to a mixed reception. In Mullaitivu in the Wanni area where the last battles of the war took place, the public reception had elements of hostility. Families of missing persons protested and it required police intervention to enable the programme to move ahead. Although intended to promote the concept of “access to justice” the focus of the protests was on the issues of missing persons and those detained for long periods without trial. Both of these have been longstanding and highly publicized issues, which have included public protests on a daily basis that have lasted for years at a time.
The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”
The media has reported that today President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be announcing a new policy on national reconciliation in his address to parliament at the inaugural session following prorogation last month. Apart from bringing peace of mind and comfort to those bereaved by the three decades long war, the central issue of national reconciliation is to find an equitable solution to the ethnic and religious conflicts that have plagued the country since the dawn of independence more than seven decades ago. The focus now needs to be on the development of the country and its economy rather than to support any parochial or ethnic cause and continue with the divisive politics of the past. It is only by this that the country can get back on its feet as many have done following traumatic events. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected by a large majority with this hope in mind.
The government has been under especial scrutiny on issues of human rights in relation to the post-war reconciliation process following its election in 2019 and subsequent withdrawal from the UN mandated reconciliation process epitomized by Resolution 30/1 of 2015 of the UN Human Rights Council that was co-sponsored by the previous government. The appointment of Prof G L Peiris last year as Foreign Minister with a mandate to deal with this issue has been a positive step to consolidate and build on efforts to convince the international community that the reconciliation process continues to be a priority. One of the few areas of positive development in an increasingly pessimistic scenario at the present time is with regard to the institutions established to promote the reconciliation process in the past few years.
The president has recently been venting in his frustrations on public administrators and government officials whom he sees as failing to deliver on their duties and commitments. Several of them have been fired from their positions and some have resigned on their own. Ironically, most of these persons who have been moved out by design or by circumstance have been persons against whom there were no allegations of corruption, unlike in the case of many in the government. Though he had appointed many retired and serving military officers to high positions in the state, it does not seem to work well either, though this is less acknowledged. There is a lack of cohesion across many sectors and even within the ruling alliance. Building cohesive relationships between political parties and communities across the country is a challenge facing the President in 2022. The most important thing to hope for in the new year is that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gets the right team around him and implements a zero-tolerance for corruption policy with all sections of the community being treated with fairness and equity.
The chairperson of the presidential commission on one country, one law, Ven Galagodaathe Gnanasara has expressed the view that the country should be ruled by the Sri Lanka army for a few years to put it right. Implicit in his assertion, if rightly conveyed by the Tamil language media to which he gave his interview, is his lack of faith in democracy. Also implicit is the preference for top-down decision making that is inherent in the military together with the use of force to subdue the opposition. So far the opposition to the government has been muted, inside the heads of people, but with time it is bound to spill outside with the economy in steep decline and corruption and impunity on the rise. Difficult decisions need to be made before the people’s frustrations take a public form.
Headstrong and misguided leadership has brought the country to a sorry pass. The Fitch Rating agency has downgraded Sri Lanka to a rank of CC. This reflects its view of an increased probability of a default event in coming months in light of Sri Lanka’s worsening external liquidity position and drop in foreign-exchange reserves. The government has responded by finding fault with the ratings agency for being biased and not looking at the entirety of the country’s financial situation and likely sources of foreign exchange inflows. The governor of the Central Bank had stated that the fast-depleting foreign reserves will receive a boost before the end of the year. On the other hand, the grim reality is that with every passing month the country’s foreign reserves have been shrinking and positive predictions to the contrary have not materialised.