Photo courtesy of SBS

Currently as the UN General Assembly (UNGA) sessions proceed in New York, the real action is at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, where the conduct of the Sri Lankan government is on the agenda and under close examination for its international commitments and obligations under the terms of UNHRC Resolution 46/1 adopted by the Council at an earlier session in March this year.

Defending the record of the government through the new normal of a video statement in a teleconference format was our newly minted Foreign Minister (pun unintended), the learned Professor Gamini Lakshman Peiris, who had the unenviable task and the impossible brief of seeking to convince the world that the proverbial emperor did have clothes and that Sri Lanka was pursuing a robust domestic process of reconciliation and reforms. That the endeavour failed miserably is unsurprising. The occasion, however, provides an opportunity to reassess where we are and where we are headed in the second decade since ending the war in 2009. The election of a new Rajapaksa Administration in November 2019 for a five-year term to give leadership to the second post war decade also provided us with the opportunity to assess what we achieved in the first decade after the war and to improve what needed to be improved, build on what was started and change what needed to be changed.

Ignoring the obvious moderate consensus

Basic political science theory, real politick and even plain common sense would teach us that there is a need to secure the peace after ending a war through addressing the effects and the causes of the conflict. This is what in essence then President Mahinda Rajapaksa committed Sri Lanka to do with former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon through their now well-known joint communique of May 2009. As the government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by Mahinda Rajapaksa observed in its findings and recommendations, the civil conflict laid bare a deeply polarised and divided society and there was an urgent need for remedial action to move forward as one nation towards a shared future. The first post war decade of 2009-2019 saw some progress in that regard, which was slower than many would have wished, but nonetheless progress in the right direction, which brings us to the post 2019 period.

The post 2019 direction identified in Resolution 46/1

The focus of UNHRC Resolution 46/1 has much more to do with declining democratic space and deteriorating human rights post the 2019 election than the conduct of the war. The increasing importance in international diplomacy of conflict prevention, not just conflict resolution, means that there is an increasing focus on trying to prevent occurrence and the re-occurrence of conflict. It is in this context that narrowing democratic spaces, weakening institutions and declining human rights cause such concern. There are some specific issues of concern which highlight Sri Lanka’s backsliding, if not a pivot, to something less benign than slow paced reconciliation. Below is a non-exhaustive list of some areas of concern.

  1. Expanding rather than reforming the Prevention of Terrorism Act

The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was at its introduction brought in as a temporary measure. Its key features including of administrative detention without trial, non-judicial oversight of detention and the admissibility of (forced and coerced) confessions as evidence make the PTA incompatible with international best practices on laws dealing with terrorism suspects and the PTA needs to be urgently reformed. In that respect the excellent recommendations of the Colombo Law Society, developed some years ago in consultation with trial lawyers and the private bar to reform the PTA, would bring it in line with international best practice and the fair administration of justice. On the contrary, post 2019, there has been a rapid expansion of the use of the PTA for among other things to establish “de-radicalization centres” temporarily halted by the Supreme Court and to incarcerate lawyer Hejaz Hizbullah, since declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, as well as teacher and poet Ahnaf Jazeem, both mentioned by name by UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet.

  1. Declaring a state of emergency

A country trying to attract tourists and foreign investors bizarrely goes and declares a state of emergency under the Public Security Ordinance and appoints yet another military man as Commissioner under its powers, ostensibly for the reason of ensuring the consumer protection in essential food items. A task, which the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) was to point out in a statement, is the preserve of the Consumer Affairs Authority and other civil administrators. Existing legislation, specifically under the Disaster Management Act, makes provision for the extraordinary circumstances of a national disaster. Regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, it is a disaster but a prolonged one and therefore what we need are systems in place as provided under the Disaster Management Act rather than a state of national emergency, which is usually declared to deal with either armed opposition to the state or at the least riots and civil commotion, none of which are present at the moment.

  1. Declining democratic space

The real issue of concern to the much of the world – and especially to countries of our major exports markets and tourist generating countries of the West and indeed India – is the significant narrowing of democratic space. As Ms. Bachelet observed in her statement to the Council, “Regrettably, surveillance, intimidation and judicial harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and families of the disappeared has not only continued, but has broadened to a wider spectrum of students, academics, medical professionals and religious leaders critical of government policies. Several peaceful protests and commemorations have been met with excessive use of force and the arrest and detention of demonstrators in quarantine centers”. Blustering, denial and indignation are not credible responses internationally even if they work under duress with a cowed and servile citizenry, locally.

  1. Emerging issues

An emerging issue in the human rights space is the issue of investigations and justice for the Easter Sunday bombings. The Roman Catholic Church, through its public statements and utterances, seemed to have gone a full circle from blaming leading personalities in the former Sirisena/Wickremesinghe administration, including those two people themselves, to faulting the current government for failing to find the mastermind behind the plot and examining possible involvement of the deep state. The latest twist in that plot was a claim by the church, that the government was seeking to mislead the Vatican during Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recent Italian visit, resulting in the non-event of a Papal audience. Ms. Bachelet states, “… religious leaders continue to call urgently for truth and justice and a full account of the circumstances that permitted those attacks”.

Clearly Sri Lanka’s reconciliation and democratic reforms seem to be sliding in a negative direction and a course correction is urgently required. With a little less than half its term of office over, the first ever SLPP administration should actively explore a genuine if even moderate course correction rather than persist in the trajectory that it has followed for its past two years in office.

The writer served previously as Advisor to the President and as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs