Photo courtesy JDS

As promised, the Sri Lankan government made the final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) public last month. It has also recently released its “National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights: 2011-2016.”

The Action Plan was developed in accordance with a commitment the government had made in 2008, the last time Sri Lanka participated in the UN’s Universal Periodic Review.

Both documents are part of the Sri Lankan government’s strategy to placate international observers and convince people that there is no need for any kind of international assistance because the country’s domestic institutions are working just fine. Like the LLRC report, the National Action Plan contains some decent ideas and recommendations, but it is replete with missing and false information. For example, the section on the Prevention of Torture is laughable and worrisome.

The Sri Lankan government claims that it “maintains a zero-tolerance policy on torture.” This sweeping assertion directly contradicts loads of evidence, including the recent findings of the UN’s Committee Against Torture (CAT). The fact that the Ministry of Defense has been denoted as the “Key Responsible Agency” for ensuring the prevention of torture is perhaps more disconcerting.

The front-page story in last week’s Sunday Leader, which explains “that that some 500 people have been reported missing in the North and East alone over the past few years” should give people good reason to worry. The rule of law continues to deteriorate under President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s watch. The government will present its National Action Plan at the UN Human Rights Council’s (HRC) 19th session in March.

What Will Happen in Geneva?

In theory, Rajapaksa’s administration has plenty to worry about. Lobbying and debate surrounding the next session of the HRC has already begun.

Many foreign governments recently made strong statements that the LLRC’s final report does not touch on the question of accountability. The Sri Lankan government refuses to look into credible claims that violations of international humanitarian law occurred at the end of the war; government officials are unwilling to go into any detail about what actually happened during the last phase of the conflict.

Strident calls for an international mechanism will be made this spring in Geneva. If no resolution gets through either of the next two sessions of the HRC (another session will be held this summer), then Rajapaksa’s government can probably rest easy as long as they stay in power.

Diplomacy is not always a zero-sum game, but Rajapaksa’s government knows that the final report of the LLRC and the National Action Plan are its two most potent lobbying weapons, as long as government officials continue to bend the truth or promulgate outright lies.

This is ironic because both documents distort reality and should actually be used against the government. They reinforce the notion that Rajapaksa’s administration does not care about human rights.

The processes surrounding the drafting and the finalization of the LLRC and the National Action Plan were deeply flawed and not at all independent. The LLRC’s lack of independence is well-known. (President Rajapaksa appointed the eight-member Commission himself). The true story about the National Action Plan appears to be less widely understood, especially outside of Sri Lanka.

The government’s drafting of the National Action Plan was quite devious. A number of civil society leaders, academics and genuinely independent thinkers were included in the eight-committee body during the initial process and the composition of the first draft of the National Action Plan. Yet committee members were not involved in the process after that.Now, the Sri Lankan government is falsely claiming that the National Action Plan was the result of a thoughtful, inclusive process. This is absurd. As Rohan Edrisinha (a member of one of the drafting committees) has already indicated, that was not what happened. Drafting committee members never did approve the final document, only the first draft.

In another clever ploy, this “watered down” version is being heralded as a step in the right direction. Few people are speaking out about this issue because they are afraid to do so. Rajapaksa’s government has benefited from a fragmented political opposition for years. Divisions within Sri Lankan civil society only make the government’s consolidation of power that much easier. In addition to some lively debate at the Human Rights Council, Sri Lanka’s human rights record will also be examined under the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) this year. The government’s propaganda machine is already in full swing. Sri Lankan diplomats will welcome many foreign dignitaries in January and February.

President Rajapaksa and senior government officials will use these visits as a platform to prepare a more complete misinformation campaign for Geneva in late February and early March. The Sri Lankan government will be touting both the LLRC and the National Action Plan as wonderful examples of how just and satisfactory things are in Sri Lanka.

The idea is farcical.

In January of 2010, the IMF declared Sri Lanka a Middle Income country. The war has been over for more than two years. International observers and NGOs are moving on to the next crisis: Libya, Egypt, Tunisia or elsewhere. A new disaster or humanitarian catastrophe is always right around the corner. Nonetheless, what happened in Sri Lanka in 2009 cannot be brushed aside. One does not sweep ethnic tension under the rug and wait idly by, hoping that it disappears.

Looking Ahead

Again, in spite of the LLRC’s complete exoneration of the military, the report does contain some good recommendations about devolution, land rights, compensation for victims/survivors and demilitarisation. There are some decent thoughts and recommendations in the National Action Plan as well.

However, the chances that the Sri Lankan government will swiftly move to implement any of the solid recommendations are infinitesimal. Rajapaksa’s government has shown its unwillingness to follow through on almost all the agreements it made during the last session of the Universal Periodic Review in 2008. It disregarded the LLRC’s interim recommendations too. The word “recommendation” in Sri Lankan political parlance is meaningless. Why should anyone be optimistic this time around? Forget recommendations, the government continues to ignore its own constitution.

To take one example, President Rajapaksa’s intractable position on the devolution of power to the country’s Northern and Eastern provinces, something that is clearly articulated in the 13th Amendment of the country’s constitution, is not helping. Nor is the government’s current dialogue with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is starting to look more like a scene from Waiting for Godot and less like any semblance of political negotiation with each passing day.

Why would any rational person take President Rajapaksa’s recent statement about the “full implementation of the 13 Amendment plus” seriously?[1]

Despite some claims to the contrary, Mahinda Rajapaksa is not (yet) Robert Mugabe and Sri Lanka is not Zimbabwe. But this government has undoubtedly become more authoritarian since the end of the war. Just because the country has a history of “democracy” does not mean that continued democratic governance is a foregone conclusion. The erosion of checks and balances since 2009 has been significant. The passage of the 18th Amendment in 2010 reinforced this, as that legislation pulled even more power to the executive.

Some sort of resolution should get through the HRC this year. It might be weak and disappoint many, but it would be better than nothing. If the HRC fails to pass any resolution on Sri Lanka, it would be a humiliating display of fecklessness.

According to the HRC’s website, “The Council was created by the UN General Assembly on 15 March 2006 with the main purpose of addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them.”[2]

Over the past five years, the HRC has proven that is very capable of making recommendations. It is the first part of the HRC’s mission that the body struggles with. Does the HRC actually address “situations of human rights violations” in a meaningful way?

Inaction on Sri Lanka would be a black mark on an institution that already has a dithering problem. It would be an embarrassment. If the HRC cannot crack down on Sri Lanka, when would it ever act? Should replacing the Commission on Human Rights with the HRC still be viewed as an improvement?

Tyranny and inaction may prevail this year in Geneva. If that were to happen, people will be asking many questions. This would be a good first question: What is the purpose of the Human Rights Council? A good second question would be: Are the proceedings of the Human Rights Council a colossal waste of time and money?

Giving Rajapaksa’s government a free pass on human rights empowers aspiring autocrats everywhere. It sends a clear signal to semi-authoritarian governments: Go ahead, do whatever you want; you will face no consequences for your actions.


A version of this article was first published in The Journal of Foreign Relations.

  • Haris

    The Western world so far never helped to make the post war situation improve in Sri Lanka. The Western press and the politicians are so tainted by the relentless LTTE lobbying and distribution of funds it has come to a stage that SriLankans just laugh ind ignore what they have to say. Worse is that they use such opinion as a mirror to do exact opposite.
    I have never witnessed these ‘Western rags’ criticize the NATO forces or the Americans. The Americans and the Israeli’s carry out dispicable deeds and say sorry at the end. All is forgotten. Where has the pissing on the dead bodies of Taliban have gone so far? Should this have happened in Sri Lanka, Ban Ki Moon would have been there in person to investigate.
    If you want to be taken serious offer constructive criticism. I suppose not, this is just a job for you when jobs are scarce.

    • Gnanam Selvaratnam

      wholeheartedly agree.

      • Lanka liar

        Are you sure you have a heart.

    • Lanka liar

      You are talking Sri Lankan. If Hitler can murder why not Sri Lankan. If some criminal can rape why not the Sri Lankan. Rapist. The quality and quantity of humanrights violations committed in Sri Lanka is many times more than NATO or USA . Don’t try to hide behind the LTTE . Crime is is crime and you commit a crime you have to do the time. Somewhere somebody sometimes was not punished doesnot give excuse for letting the criminals go free whoever it may be.if LTTE is lobby for justice so be it. It is after all justice isn’t it. . You too should join them. If you fight for justice you always win or else you become uncivilized.

  • For a small, insignificant, powerless country, Sri Lanka’s diplomats have punched way above their weight and have been stunningly effective at staving off investigations by concerned humanitarians, starting at the famous victory against the UK/EU inspired motion in Geneva in May 2009 right up to the present date.

    That these victories have been squandered by this govt’s ‘head-in-the-sand-and-hoping it’ll all go away’ attitude is a gross betrayal of their efforts. We know for certain that pro-Eelam forces will continue to press for investigations, as can be seen from these pro-Eelam UK MPs linked to the TGTE, speaking in Dec 2011.

    Lee Scott, Labour MP pressing for ‘investigations’.

    Siobhan MMcDonagh Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden and Mullativu also pressing for ‘investigations’.

    In case anyone’s forgotten, Amnesty’s ability to lecture Sri Lanka has been crippled by them having accepted $50,000 from the Canadian Tamil Congress.

    • Candidly

      Just to point out that Lee Scott the UK MP is actually a Conservative MP. He is shameless in attending public meetings in the UK along with representatives of Tamil separatists, including the Tamil Tigers. See, for example, his attendance in May 2010 & May 2011 at public meetings in London alongside banners and flags of the UK-banned Tamil Tigers as recorded on the website of the British Tamils Forum:

      • Lanka liar

        What abOut Fox shame what. If this MP is shameless think about Sri Lanka how shamefully they should be for committing all these crimes.and associating with mass murderers like KP and Karuna . Please watch channel 4 and listen to those journalist’s wives and kids who have been kidnapped and murdered, perhaps you will say Amnesty LTTE USA NATO just some thing out of point. Just address the facts and talk direct rather than talking Sri Lankan.

      • Thanks for the correction on Lee Scott. A list of MPs of all major UK political parties supporting the cause of Eelam during the 2010 UK Election is proof of the electoral advantage to be gained by pandering to the LTTE.

        Stephen Pound MP (Labour) says, “I believe passionately that as the UK is part of the problem in Sri Lanka it has to be a part of the solution and I will continue to work with the community and with individuals to obtain peace and security in this country and an independent state in the homeland.” Hmmmm….

  • Ruwan S.

    Today I got a chain e-mail. It’s first para is attached below & says all that needs to be told about this article and its author:

    Quote unquote

    • Sorry, where is the quote?

      • Ruwan S.

        Quote Unquote

    • Lanka liar

      Why no lies between the quote and unquote Ruvan.

  • Gnanam Selvaratnam

    Ruwan, there is no quote…

  • Candidly

    Gibson Bateman claims:
    “Many foreign governments recently made strong statements that the LLRC’s final report does not touch on the question of accountability.”
    There are 192 governments in the world so “many foreign governments” should be quite a few. So who are the many who have made these statements on the issue of accountability? Those of the USA, Canada, the UK and, err… the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam!

    What really seems to upset this liberal-imperialist academic Gibson Bateman is that the Sri Lankan government had the nerve to act in the best interests of its own people in defeating the Tamil Tigers rather than obeying the instructions of the powerful Western nations. He also seems to be panicing at the prospect of the UN Human Rights Commission once again re-affirming that the human right of people to be free from terrorism trump the right of people to be terrorists if they so chose. Strange thinking.

  • Saro

    It will help to remind the UN HRC members if we send a copy of the above article, ‘ Examing Sri Lanka’s Diplomacy Machine’ about the ” the main purpose of addressing situations of human rights violations and make recommendations on them” to each of them. The implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC report and ‘National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights’ is a question of life and death to the members of the ethnic minorities specially Tamils and independent journalists.
    The ‘democracy’ in Sri Lanka is government of the ethnic-majority, by the ethnic-majority and for the ethnic-majority. To experience the truth of this definition, one should travel to the Sinhalese South, say, Hambantota and the Tamil north, say, Jaffna on land. The south is adorned by new highways, new railways and new hotels and tourist resorts and the north with roads with potholes but extravagant war memorials and Buddist viharas amidst ruined temples, churches and bullet-ridden buildings.

    • Candidly

      Saro @:
      “… the north with roads with potholes but extravagant war memorials and Buddist viharas amidst ruined temples, churches and bullet-ridden buildings.”

      I think most people are aware that the reason for the disastrous situation in the north is that the area was ruled for over 30 years by a bunch of political gangsters (the Tamil Tigers) who just enjoyed killing and destroying and cared nothing for the Sri Lankan Tamil people they were ruling over.

    • wijayapala

      Dear Saro

      The south is adorned by new highways, new railways and new hotels and tourist resorts and the north with roads with potholes but extravagant war memorials and Buddist viharas amidst ruined temples, churches and bullet-ridden buildings.

      Have you actually travelled to the north recently?

  • Heart Attack Epidemic Alert in Toronto and East London

    Shavendra Silva has (allegedly) been appointed to a Special Advisory Group on Peacekeeping Operations set up by the UNSG.

    Ha ha ha ha!