The National Peace Council (NPC)

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The issue of fulfilling the pledges made to the international community in Geneva seemed to threaten the unity of the government even a month ago. In October 2015 the government co-sponsored the resolution on Sri Lanka that was sponsored by the United States and backed by the majority of countries in the UN Human Rights Council. There were publicly articulated differences of opinion in which Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera sought to reassure the international community that the government would be standing by its pledges while President Maithripala Sirisena sought to reassure the ethnic majority population that the country’s sovereignty would not be jeopardized or the soldiers who fought in the war would not be hauled before international tribunals.

The passage of the law setting up the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) has laid to rest doubts regarding the government’s commitment, and ability, to take forward the reconciliation process, to remain politically strong within the country and also to deliver on the promises it made in Geneva. The OMP is one of the four domestic mechanisms the government undertook to set up in response to the international pressure for Sri Lanka to agree to international mechanisms to ensure accountability for war crimes and serious human rights violations. The other three mechanisms are a truth commission, an office of reparations and a special court.



Civil society members from all parts of the country walked into Temple Trees last week to meet with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. This was the first time for most of them. This included religious clergy from both the North and South. In past years, they had been more accustomed to the government treating them in a hostile manner which meant Temple Trees was out of bounds. One of the Buddhist monks said he chose not to come in the past, because he did not agree with the practices of those who had been incumbents. The meeting was held in the super size meeting hall built by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa during his two terms as president. Although Temple Trees is usually the domain of the prime minister and not the president, the former president made it his abode. Thousands of people from all walks of life were invited to Temple Trees to meet with him at state expense. The giant meeting hall could easily seat over 2000 persons in air conditioned comfort. Some who were at the meeting said that it was capable of seating as many as 7000.

The thrust of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s presentation to those who were gathered there was that the government wished to make NGOs and civil society organizations become partners with the government. He said this would not be only at the national level but also at the grassroots level. NGOs at the grassroots level have often got to fight against prejudice due to the belief within the government officials that they are anti government or doing the bidding of foreign donors. But today at the national level, NGOs are performing an important national consultation process that connects with what the government is preparing to do in terms of the transitional justice and reconciliation process. One of the key requirements of the international community is a process of public consultations that would legitimize the investigation into the past and the accountability, reparations and institutional reforms that come out of it.



The determination with which the opposition parties pursued their protest march was not an indication of their strength. The march seemed to make little sense even as it wended its way down the hills from Kandy, the last kingdom of the Sinhalese to Colombo, the present capital of Sri Lanka. The symbolism was apposite for one of the main slogans of the protest marchers was the betrayal of the country to foreign forces. There were many onlookers though relatively few of them joined in the march. Usually such a bid to generate spontaneous public protest would come towards the end of a government’s term of office when it has over-extended its stay in power and the people are dying for a change. But a mere year and a half of a government which has four more years to go is too soon to evoke a people’s movement to overthrow, or even to destabilize, the government.

The main slogans of the protest marchers related to the economic hardships faced by the people and to warnings about the threat to national sovereignty posed by the government’s constitutional reforms and war crimes trials against the security forces. The slogans regarding the economic hardships, and the much resented Value Added Tax would have evoked an empathetic feeling amongst the bystanders. But these are not issues that could move people to seek a change of government that is yet finding its feet, and has only been in power for a relatively short period of time. It is not as if the people are unaware of how the cost of living was going up during the period of the previous government. It is also much more widely known that government contracts now require more time, as they have to go through established processes, and are not granted at the discretion of those in positions of power.



The ethnic fault line in society was exposed in the clash between two groups of students at Jaffna University last week. The immediate cause of the dispute was a late request by Sinhalese students at the university to perform the traditional Sinhalese Kandyan dance at a ceremony to welcome incoming new students. This request was turned down by the organizers of the event. However, the following day when the event took place a Kandyan dancing troupe made its appearance which was resisted by the larger student body. The end result was a violent confrontation between two groups of students who divided on ethnic lines. This resulted in the temporary closure of the university, and the university administration, in an abundance of caution busing the Sinhalese students out of Jaffna.

Both sides to the dispute had their cases to make. On the side of the organizers the previous practice had been to only have a traditional Tamil cultural procession as an opening item on the agenda. The request for a change had come only the day before the event when the programme for the event had already been finalized. On the other hand, the students who wanted the insertion of the Kandyan dance argued that a significant proportion of the incoming students were Sinhalese and in addition the Science Faculty which they were joining had a majority of Sinhalese students in it. This was a problem that might have had an outcome based on a win-win solution if the focus had been on meeting the needs of the two student groups rather than on the contrary positions they took, which alas had no meeting point.



The international community appears to be accepting the Sri Lankan government’s position that international judges will not sit in judgment regarding war crimes committed during the course of the country’s civil war. The UN Human Rights Council resolution of October 2015 which the government co-sponsored left the situation ambiguous. It stated that there would be international participation of foreign and Commonwealth judges but did not specify in what form that participation would be.



The EU has downsized its list of conditions for Sri Lanka to regain the GSP Plus benefits that it lost in 2011. At that time the EU set out a list of 15 conditions that the government had to meet if it was to retain the GSP Plus benefits. The previous government flatly refused to move on them citing national security and national sovereignty as the reasons. Ironically when the new government made public its intentions to reapply for the GSP Plus benefits, the EU set out 58 conditions. But now it is reported the country will now only have to fulfill 15 of them. These 15 conditions include provision for independent and impartial appointments to key public positions, to repeal those sections of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which are incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) or amending them so as to make them clearly compatible with it, to respond to a significant number of individual cases currently pending before the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances; and to ensure journalists can exercise their professional duties without harassment.

It calls upon the Government to take the legislative steps necessary to allow individuals to submit complaints to the UN Human Rights Committee under the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR and to the UN Committee against Torture (UNCAT) under Article 22. Sri Lanka acceded to first Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1997. In the same year the Government of Sri Lanka recognized the competence of the UN Human Rights Committee to receive and consider communication from Sri Lankan citizens. The Supreme Court said that the President had gone beyond her powers as acceding to the protocol. This is the issue on which Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has spoken out against the decision of the Supreme Court in 2006 which said that incorporating the ICCPR into domestic law would require not only a 2/3 majority in Parliament but also passage at a referendum.



The UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva no longer dominate the media headlines the way they used to. During the time of the previous government the UNHRC sessions in Geneva were utilized to rally popular support on the grounds that it was needed to counter the hostile intent of the Western-led component of the international community. The former government used to give the most detrimental interpretations to the intentions of the international community and gave the work of the UNHRC the maximum of negative publicity before, during and after those sessions. It accused the international community of seeking to punish those in the Sri Lankan military who had won the war and promised not to betray them. They gave a narrow interpretation to the successive resolutions of the UNHRC since 2009 as being motivated by the desire to punish Sri Lanka and its war heroes.

By way of contrast, the policy of constructive engagement of the successor government in office since 2015 has succeeded in assuaging the concerns of the general public about the actual nature of the threat posed to the country by the Western-led international community. Most people would now see the government as handling the international community with skill and with tact. More than nine months have elapsed since the government took the unexpected step of co-sponsoring the UNHRC resolution of October 2015 and turned former hostile countries in the UNHRC into friends once more. But the resolution itself is only implemented in part as yet. The pervasive culture of fear that existed under the former government is gone, but only one of the four transitional justice mechanisms that the government promised to establish has appeared, and that too only in draft form.



The Sri Lankan government goes into the current session of the UN Human Rights Council with several accomplishments to show. These are primarily at the level of change of spirit and less as concrete changes that can be quantified. It is difficult to quantify the impact of the lifting of fear of agents of the state and their associates acting with impunity, of white vans into which people disappear and the attitude of confrontation. But these have transformed life in the country. The passage of the Right to Information law in Parliament unanimously, without a vote and therefore without division, is an indication that there is broad acceptance in the polity, to which the government gives leadership, that good governance is good for all. In addition, the government has been able to showcase the draft law setting up the Office of Missing Persons, which is one of the four transitional justice mechanisms that it promised to establish at the October 2015 session of the UNHRC.

There are many other changes in the political and legal framework that will infuse a new spirit and atmosphere into the country, such as the draft constitution, the preparation of which is proceeding more rapidly than anticipated. The Steering Committee appointed by the Constitutional Assembly formed out of the whole of Parliament for evolving proposals for a new constitution will be submitting its interim report that will give an outline of its preliminary proposals for constitution-making soon, as early as next month. The promise of the new constitution will be, amongst others, to provide a lasting solution to the issues that embroiled the country in three decades of violence, which led to war, to massive human rights violations on all sides and to war crimes.



There have been indications of a growing gap between the positions taken by the UNP and SLFP which are the two main constituent parties of the National Unity Government. Some months ago it took the form of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaking positively in terms of international involvement in the country’s post-war accountability process while President Maithripala Sirisena said the reverse. At the present time the point of concern would be the fate of the Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran. The SLFP has opposed his reappointment. On the other hand, the UNP led by the Prime Minister have expressed their confidence in the Governor’s contribution to the economy as a member of the government team. This is an issue on which the two parties will have to find a mutually acceptable solution if their relationship is not to be soured and they continue to cooperate on important issues as they have been doing so far for the past one and a half years since the election of the new government.

The defeat of the no-confidence motion against Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake by a large 145 to 51 margin showed that the government’s majority in Parliament remains secure. The failure of the Joint Opposition to obtain the support of SLFP members who have joined the government was a major blow to their efforts to portray themselves as a government-in-waiting. Although members of the Joint Opposition continue to make political speeches that ostensibly have public backing, their weakness in Parliament was manifested by the magnitude of the defeat of the no-confidence motion they had presented with an appearance of confidence in themselves. There appears to be a fall in the public campaign of the Joint Opposition after this political debacle. Former coalition partners of theirs from the CWC and EPDP have joined the government. To make matters worse for them, one of their key leaders has been arrested on charges of financial fraud.



The 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council starts this week in Geneva at which the case of Sri Lanka will be taken up. UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein will make a statement on the progress that has taken place with regard to the UNHRC resolution of October 2015 which was co-sponsored by the Sri Lankan government. The main institutional development to be presented will be the Office of Missing Persons of which the Sri Lankan government has presented draft legislation approved by the cabinet of ministers. There will be many other developments reported too, such as the government’s ratification of the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances, the issuance of Sri Lankan passports to those who claimed asylum abroad, the deproscription of many banned organizations and the report of the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reform.

The government may await feedback from the UNHRC prior to submitting the draft legislation on the Office of Missing Persons to Parliament for final passage into law. The defeat of the no-confidence motion against Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake by a comfortable majority of 145 votes to 51 in Parliament will give the government confidence that it can pass the first of the transitional justice mechanisms that it has developed into law. At the 30th session of the UNHRC that took place in September 2015 the government promised four mechanisms to promote transitional justice. In addition to the Office of Missing Persons, the government promised to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a Special Court on Accountability and an Office of Reparations. Although the draft legislation regarding these three mechanisms has not emerged it is reported that the government is close to completion on them too.



The June session of the UN Human Rights Council is expected to be an important test for the government. The resolution that it co-sponsored in October 2015 stated that the UN High Commissioner would submit an oral update to the Human Rights Council at its thirty-second session (June 2016) and a comprehensive report followed by discussion on the implementation of the present resolution at its thirty-fourth session (March 2017). In recent weeks there have been several announcements by the government to highlight the progress that it has made in implementing the UNHRC resolution.

The most important of these governmental actions is the unveiling of the draft legislation on the Office of Missing Persons. This was one of the four transitional justice mechanisms that Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera promised to establish in the run up to the co-sponsored resolution of October 2015. Other actions taken by the government in the past month include the setting up of a witness protection unit under the Ministry of Justice, the decision to re-issue Sri Lankan passports to those who had sought political asylum abroad if they so desired, and the release of the report of the Public Representations Committee on constitutional reforms.



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