Concern is growing, at home and internationally, about increasing unwillingness among leaders – especially the president – to accept checks on the power exercised over the people of Sri Lanka. “I am troubled that the new Government is swiftly reneging on its commitments to the Human Rights Council,” said United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. Rejecting worldwide human rights and democratic norms, including ways to hold the state accountable, will affect not just minorities but all communities, deepen divisions and undermine the rule of law.

Failure to recognise the costs of unaddressed violence and injustice

On matters such as minimising deaths from COVID-19, where Sri Lanka has set an example of international good practice, the UN has highlighted achievements. Yet where human rights violations have been left unresolved, UN officials and advisers have pointed to the need for meaningful action.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights set out her concerns on 14 September, as the HRC met: “Among other developments, the proposed 20th amendment to the Constitution may negatively impact on the independence of key institutions, including the National Human Rights Commission. The pardon given in March to a former Army sergeant convicted of participating in unlawful killings; appointments to key civilian roles of senior military officials allegedly involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity; and moves within the police and judiciary to thwart the investigation of such crimes, set a very negative trend. The surveillance and intimidation of victims, their families, human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers should cease immediately.”

In 2015, then-president Maithripala Sirisena had agreed to cooperate with the UN in helping the country come to terms with the mass civilian deaths of 2009, when both army commanders and Tiger rebels violated the rules of war. Families whose loved ones had disappeared hoped, too, to find out what had happened to them.

Yet these hopes did not materialise. In a report produced in advance for the HRC, Pablo de Greiff, a former Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence, noted some progress but, overall, a failure to address key issues. “Sri Lanka appears to have missed an historic opportunity to provide lessons to the world about how sustainable peace ought to be achieved,” he wrote.

Though international concerns have sometimes been seen as unfairly targeting Sinhalese-dominated governments, he pointed out that the civil war which ended 11 years ago took place within a wider context, including the Tigers’ expulsion of Muslims from Jaffna in 1990 and violence within ethnic communities such as “the 1987–1989 violence and the violence perpetrated by the Tamil Tigers against Tamils.”

Such an approach could have eased victims’ suffering and helped to “establish minimum conditions of trust especially in State institutions, and could contribute to strengthening the rule of law, social cohesion and reconciliation,” he suggested. He highlighted “the conflict-inducing nature of unaddressed massive violations” and risk of further violations, without willingness to address what had happened and ongoing weaknesses in accountability of the police and security services.

However senior figures have been quick to brush off criticism, perhaps hoping to bolster domestic support for the President amidst controversy over growing centralisation of power. According to Acting Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Dayani Mendis, the government had not only tackled the pandemic effectively and taken anti-poverty measures but had also made progress in resolving the concerns raised. It would seek to achieve “a sustainable peace” through a “domestically designed and executed reconciliation and accountability process”. But, over many years, such internal processes have failed to address and resolve past hurts and present misgivings among minorities and wider civil society.

Government minister Keheliya Rambukwella appealed to a sense of nationalist pride in his rejection of UN concerns, claiming “If we surrender as a country we would have to accept everything that is said by the UNHRC as true.” Of course there is no requirement to agree to everything the UN says, just an appeal to listen to the voices of families and survivors as well as those at most risk of becoming future victims and to bring them justice. Nor are international bodies drawing attention to the marginalised and excluded in particular countries similar to invading armies, to be repelled as an act of heroism.

International Truth and Justice Project and other critics

Meanwhile other international bodies have joined the call for greater accountability on the part of Sri Lanka’s leaders and for assurance of checks and balances. In many cases such organisations have made sure that the experiences and views of those in Sri Lanka afraid to speak out openly for fear of reprisals, or whose views and experiences go unreported by local media, do not go unheard. Concerns such as the erosion of democratic principles and values, so dear to many in Sri Lanka, have been spotlighted and sometimes placed in historical context. Too often in modern history, across the world, those who went on to become ruthless dictators first came to office through elections, and then rewrote the rules, ignoring any aspects that did not suit them.

The South African-based International Truth and Justice Project has been gathering and sharing evidence on the plight of victims of violence and the increasing concentration of power in the hands of the President, his family and former military comrades.

On 15 September, a news release by ITJP suggested that, far from exaggerating the situation, Michelle Bachelet had underplayed its seriousness: “the human rights situation under the new Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka is a lot more worrying than the High Commissioner can elaborate on in such a brief statement.”

Details were given of the military backgrounds of many in powerful positions, including alleged war criminals. These allegations should be tested in court in a fair and transparent process before handing them major responsibilities, ITJP suggested. “Also at issue is the concentration of power in the hands of one family… Within these ministers’ responsibilities are also at least 118 Departments, Statutory Institutions and Public Corporations all under the control of one family.”

According to ITJP executive director Yasmin Sooka, “With the space for civil society working on human rights and transitional justice closing down almost entirely, engagement by member states with the Sri Lankan Government must be on the basis of protecting human rights and human rights defenders and ensuring that Sri Lanka is held accountable to the commitments it made in 2015 to its citizens and in accordance with their international obligations. Failing to do so deepens impunity in Sri Lanka and erodes any notion of the rule of law.”

Government enthusiasts have shrugged off these criticisms, seeking to dent its credibility by flagging the use of the wrong photograph of a military figure, for which ITJP apologised, and portraying its director as being, at best, the naïve dupe of former terrorists. Yet the overall weight of evidence for war crimes by both state and Tiger forces is hard to ignore. And current fears, across all communities, about overreach of presidential powers, especially clear in the 20th Amendment, are even harder to disregard.

On 22 September, Commonwealth judges’, lawyers’ and journalists’ associations issued a joint statement underlying the risks to judicial independence and democratic principles in the 20th Amendment. Aspects are “contrary to the Commonwealth (Latimer House) Principles as well as the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary and to the spirit of the separation of powers and the Commonwealth Charter.”

Drawbacks of dismissing international concerns

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s stance appears to be that the criticism is unfounded and, in any case, what governments do once elected is not the UN’s business. In a statement to the UN General Assembly, dated 22 September, he seemed to fob off concerns about war crimes and the fate of the disappeared as mainly propaganda spread by Tiger sympathisers, stating, “In spite of its elimination from the Sri Lankan soil, the international network of this terrorist outfit remains, pushing its ruthless ideology and influencing certain Capitals to spread its baseless lies and propaganda.” He potentially paved the way for further violent crackdowns on minorities, on the basis of a “growing recruitment drive of the extremist outfits” and attempts at “indoctrination and radicalization of another generation of youth.”

He also urged, “In order to ensure the sustainability and the credibility of the Organization, political witch hunts through questionable motives against Member States, need to be halted.” He argued that “Democratically elected governments of nations understand the pulse and needs of their people the best. It is the responsibility of the UN to assist and support processes of such elected Governments to bring about sustainable solutions for needs of their people.”

His rhetoric and defiant stance may win him some support in sections of the population who find some of the realities of the civil war too painful to revisit and who are looking for a strong leader, especially amidst a pandemic which has caused such fear and uncertainty. For dissidents and minorities in Sri Lanka, however, it leaves many feeling even more marginalised and alienated. It also makes things harder for those in Tamil and Muslim communities trying to counter the appeal of violent extremism, which may rise if state abuse of power intensifies and peaceful avenues for expressing views and redressing grievances become fewer.

Yet the majority too are at risk, especially those who are neither wealthy nor powerful, since they too stand to lose their rights. The problems may become more evident if the economy falters, as is happening in numerous countries, and social and economic inequalities deepen. A government increasingly used to wielding absolute power may find it harder to listen and respond to their concerns and may ignore or silence them instead, with potentially devastating consequences.

In terms of the President’s own position, he may for a while be able to ignore the disapproval of international bodies, organisations and individuals across the world, especially if he has allies among other governments. But his stance may make it harder to gain overseas cooperation and assistance, for instance in trying to deal with the economic consequences of the pandemic and measures to contain it. This may cause particular problems if there is no way to guarantee that humanitarian aid is properly spent rather than used corruptly, and if independent institutions are dismantled. And if the humiliation of, and injustice and violence against, minorities again lead to a refugee crisis and possibly further civil war, getting sympathy and help from certain other governments may prove impossible.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his inner circle may find that failure to address concerns raised by the UN and other international bodies comes at a price. While bolstering his reputation among sections of the population, it may damage not only the wellbeing of ordinary Sri Lankans but, in the longer term, his ability to lead effectively, at a time of major challenges.