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Saturday 23 Mar 2019 | 21:31 | SYDNEY
Saturday 23 Mar 2019 | 21:31 | SYDNEY

Sri Lanka: politics overthrows justice

Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the United Nations addresses the Conference on Disarmament's High-Level Segment 2019 (Photo: UN Geneva/ Flickr)

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14 March 2019 06:00

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recently released a report on Sri Lanka. The document assesses the island nation’s compliance with previous commitments – pertaining to human rights and transitional justice – that it made at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). Sri Lanka will garner attention during the HRC’s 40th session, which opened on 25 February and ends 22 March.

Mahinda Rajapaksa lost a presidential election in January 2015 and the new administration, led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, announced a bold transitional justice agenda later that year, which was reinforced with a co-sponsored resolution at the HRC in October 2015. But there hasn’t been much progress since then, something that the report makes clear:

Such slow progress in establishing meaningful transitional justice measures has engendered mistrust among victims and other stakeholders.

Here’s more:

The situation has been compounded by the lack of a comprehensive strategy or action plan setting out a timeline for the establishment of the various transitional justice mechanisms and the linkages between them.

The government promised to create four transitional justice mechanisms: an office to handle missing persons; a truth commission; a judicial mechanism to address wartime accountability; and a reparations office. The Office on Missing Persons is the only body that’s operational.

The report also briefly touches on the “political crisis” that occurred last year; the document doesn’t go into detail, but it’s hard to overstate how significant that event was. On 26 October, Sirisena abruptly and unconstitutionally fired Wickremesinghe, replaced him with Rajapaksa and terminated an increasingly awkward coalition that had ruled for the past few years. With two competing claims for the post of prime minister, the country was thrown into chaos. After more than seven weeks of uncertainty, Rajapaksa gave up his illegitimate claim to the premiership and Wickremesinghe was subsequently sworn in.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration never seemed to take transitional justice seriously and didn’t adequately explain its importance to the general public.

On the one hand, Sri Lanka’s institutions showed resiliency. The overthrow attempt failed. On the other, the root causes of the crisis – difficult issues of domestic politics – did not get resolved. And the political upheaval tarnished the country’s democracy.

The report raises concerns about ongoing human rights violations and the lack of accountability for past transgressions – emphasising that “the risk of new violations increases when impunity for serious crimes continues unchecked.” Relatedly, there continue to be concerns about torture, sexual violence, and incidents of abduction being committed by Sri Lankan security personnel. These violations point to the pressing need for security sector reform – something that’s unlikely to be on the agenda any time soon.

The contents of the report are unsurprising. It’s well-known that Sri Lanka has done a poor job of following through on pledges that have been made at the HRC. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration never seemed to take transitional justice seriously and didn’t adequately explain its importance to the general public.

Furthermore, the recent coup attempt (which marked the end of coalition governance), and electoral exigencies – with expectations for a presidential election later this year and a parliamentary poll in 2020 – mean that one should not anticipate much in the way of reform this year.

Towards the end of this HRC session, another co-sponsored resolution is expected to be passed on Sri Lanka. Don’t expect that to have much of an impact on government policy.

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