The National Peace Council (NPC)

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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.

Initially this clause in the UNHRC resolution was interpreted in the light of the report of the expert panel commissioned by the UN Human Rights Commissioner. This report recommended a hybrid court, which would have both Sri Lankan and international judges. The international community, and Tamil leaders in particular interpreted the UNHRC resolution to mean that international judges would be participating as sitting judges who would deliver judgments as to whether war crimes took place or not.

At an early meeting not long after the co-sponsoring of the UNHRC resolution by the government, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe addressed civil society activists and explained to them that Sri Lankan judges sat on international tribunals and there was nothing new in international judges taking part in Sri Lankan investigations. This has occurred when Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1958 and also again in 2007 when President Mahinda Rajapaksa invited an eminent group of international experts to advise a presidential commission into serious human rights violations.



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 immediate cause of the fracas in the east involving the chief minister, governor and naval officer was personal pique. That incident has been sought to be politicized by an opposition that is ever mindful of the power of inter-ethnic mobilization of nationalism. They have warned of the undermining of the security forces of the country by the ethnic and religious minorities. The fact that it was a Muslim chief minister who spoke offensively in public to a naval officer from the predominantly Sinhalese security forces was given full play by the opposition that had once exploited narrow nationalism to win successive elections, and endeavour to continue in the same way. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa even sought to draw a link between this incident and another recent one, in which TNA leader R Sampanthan entered an army camp with some of his supporters to inspect land that had been taken over from civilians during the war.

In both cases exaggerated ethnic interpretations have been given to make it appear to the wider population as if national security is being put into jeopardy by the aggressive behaviours of the ethnic and religious minorities. In the case of the alleged gate crashing into the army camp, the TNA leader has explained that the army officer on duty had not objected to his entry into the outer precincts of the army camp to inspect land that his party supporters had claimed was their own, but which had been taken over as high security zones that the government has promised to return, and which has yet to be returned. The over-centralisation of power, the undermining of devolution of power and the use of the military to take over civilian spaces are both the cause and consequence of the three decade long war.



In October 2015 the government surprised virtually everyone regardless of political spectrum, and friend and foe, when it co-sponsored the resolution on Sri Lanka by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. From the time that the war ended in 2009 onwards Sri Lanka came under pressure by this international body to investigate charges that massive violations of human rights had taken place in the closing stages of the war, which included war crimes. Together with crimes against humanity and genocide, war crimes constitute the triumvirate of international crimes for which there can be no amnesty according to current international standards. It may be a recognition of this that drives the opposition to insist that its leaders may face the electric chair.

Prior to October 2015, the Sri Lankan government headed by former President Mahidna Rajapaksa had resisted the international calls for accountability for past violations of human rights and international crimes. It strenuously denied the allegations and sought to mobilize international support in its favour. Although the government succeeded in 2009 due to the willingness of the majority of countries at the UNHRC to give the government the benefit of time to work out a solution this victory was shortlived. Thereafter on every occasion that Sri Lanka opposed the resolutions against it in Geneva, it lost and not surprisingly as the US itself led the campaign against the Sri Lankan government.



The re-opening of the EU fisheries market to Sri Lankan exporters came as a welcome success to the government at a time when it needs to show some tangible progress on the economic front to the people. The main criticism of the government amongst the general population is the absence of economic development and poverty alleviation in their lives. While a relatively small fraction of the population travels in luxury private cars, the general public continues to hang on to the footboards of overcrowded trains for their daily commutes to their workplaces and back with some of the train engines and carriages well past their fortieth year in service. Even those sections of the population who voted for the government at the last two national elections that saw the defeat of the old one are bemoaning the lack of economic progress in the present.

The government leaders spell out a vision of Sri Lanka as an economic hub of the region, but there is a disconnect as the general population’s experience of hubs related to the economy are the village and town markets which is what they are familiar with. The rising cost of living and absence of visible development, and job creation, are the chief observations they have to make about the economy. In this context the lifting of the fisheries ban by the EU which was imposed on the country over a year ago, will indeed imrprove the livelihoods of several thousands of fisher families and those who are at the bottom of the economic pyramid and help to improve the economy in general. The ban was imposed due to the failure of the previous government to comply with international standards and adequate control systems to tackle the problem of illegal fishing.



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