- Monday, 08 February 2016
Prior to Independence Day there was an increasing concern about the extent of President Maithripala Sirisena’s commitment to the reconciliation process. These doubts surfaced with the President’s declaration that there would be no international involvement on issues arising from the war. He followed this up by saying that no war crimes had been committed in Sri Lanka and that the UN report only alleged human rights violations. Both of these assertions were given wide media publicity. They contradicted the government’s agreement with the UN Human Rights Council regarding international participation of foreign judges, prosecutors and investigators in a judicial accountability mechanism. It was left to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to exercise his damage control skills and assure the international community that Sri Lanka would stand by its international commitments.
In the course of his Independence Day speech President Sirisena fell in line with the Prime Minister’s position. He said “There are incorrect interpretations given about the resolution presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council. I clearly state that we are facing these resolutions in order to protect the pride and dignity of our country, our people and our security forces, and also to make our tri forces to be internationally renowned armed force. We should face these resolutions with patience, discipline and decorum so that our country could be respectfully recognized by all international organizations including the UNO and all states in the world.” This change of direction ensured that the visit of UN Human Rights High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein to Sri Lanka would not start on a note of fundamental disagreement.
- Monday, 01 February 2016
President Maithripala Sirisena’s rejection of foreign involvement in the judicial accountability process in Sri Lanka has once again brought to the fore the difficult issue of war crimes in the course of the war. The most controversial aspect of the UN Human Rights Council resolution that was co-signed by the Sri Lankan government last October was the need for international participation in the judicial accountability mechanism. The UNHRC resolution stated that it “affirms that a credible justice process should include independent judicial and prosecutorial institutions led by individuals known for integrity and impartiality; and further affirms in this regard the importance of participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the Special Counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers, and authorised prosecutors and investigators.”
It was the issue of accountability for war crimes and other serious human rights violations that from 2009, the very year that the war ended, pitted the Sri Lankan government against the Western –led international community. The position of the former government was one of total rejection of any international role in looking at the past. The former government claimed that no war crimes had occurred and, in any event, the war was an internal one and the international community had no role in deciding how to deal with issues that had arisen from it. However, the government failed to impress enough members of the UN Human Rights Council, which ensured that Sri Lanka faced repeated defeats when it came to the passage of resolutions that called upon the Sri Lankan government to delve credibly into the past.
- Monday, 25 January 2016
A high level delegation of EU officials was in Sri Lanka last week to have meetings with a cross section of society prior to engaging in discussions with their counterparts in the Sri Lankan government. When they met with civil society representatives they said that this was the first joint meeting on issues of human rights with the government and saw this as a positive breakthrough. They also said that they had come to see what had been delivered by the government in terms of the promises it had made. The media release that they issued after a joint EU-Sri Lanka Working Group on Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights concluded its first meeting in Colombo on 21 January 2016 stated that they expected the full implementation of the UN Human Rights Council resolution as a priority.
During the visit of the EU delegation to Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka's Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva said he was confident that Sri Lanka will regain the EU’s Generalized System of Preferences plus (GSP+) facility during this year. The EU, citing Sri Lanka's failure to meet human rights conventions relevant for benefits under the scheme, in August 2010, suspended the GSP+ tariff concession for Sri Lanka that provided tax free access to European markets for the country's products, especially for garment exports which was Sri Lanka's second largest foreign exchange earner next to worker remittances. This illustrates the holistic dimension of the UN Human Rights Council resolution. It is not only about accountability and war crimes. It is also a matter of employment and the development of the economy.
- Monday, 18 January 2016
The participation of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and visiting British Minister Hugo Swire at the Thai Pongal celebration in Jaffna is an indication of the special attention that is being given to the northern polity by the government. The top leaders of the government have been making frequent visits to the north in a way that is unprecedented. During the years of the war it was dangerous for government leaders to visit the north as they were vulnerable to being attacked by the LTTE and other militant groups. But even prior to the war there was reluctance on the part of leaders of government to visit the north. Neville Jayaweera, in his memoirs of his time as a civil servant who dealt with the north five decades ago, writes about the petty manner in which the government leaders of those years turned down opportunities to visit the north. In contrast, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are frequent travelers to the north.
However, in his speech in Jaffna on the occasion of Thai Pongal, and with the Prime Minister and British Minister in attendance, Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C V Wigneswaran was extremely critical in his assessments, claiming the presence of 150,000 soldiers as particularly detrimental to the restoration of normalcy. He spoke of the failure to free more land held by the military and the failure to abolish the Prevention of Terrorism Act. He also blamed the government of interfering in the work of the Northern Provincial Council and complained over letters being sent to him from State institutions written in the Sinhala language. The slow progress made in terms of restoring normalcy to the lives of those large numbers of people living in the north and east who are war-affected has elicited sharp and strident criticism from a wide arrange of politicians and civil society activists.