Dr. Jehan Perera disapproves of moves to buy more time to stamp transitional justice

Sri Lanka faces the challenge of convincing the world that it has put the war behind it and is dealing effectively with the consequences of the conflict. Obtaining GSP+ tariff concessions and other support from the international community depends on this. But progress has been slow since the government cosponsored the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution 30/1 titled ‘Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka,’ which was adopted unanimously on 1 October 2015.

Addressing the UNHRC in Geneva at a recent session, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera reassured the international community that the government remained committed to delivering on its promises.

At the same time, he admitted that “the journey we have undertaken, arising from our commitments to our people and the mandates received at elections, is challenging. This may be a journey strewn with both success as well as some setbacks.”

In his speech, Samaraweera made special mention of public consultations that were carried out by the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms led by eminent civil society members appointed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The Task Force recommendations met with the support and appreciation of the international human rights community and ethnic minorities, and they seek to meet international standards.

However, the problem with which the government seems to be grappling is that the Task Force recommendations do not correspond to the general sentiment among the ethnic-majority Sinhalese population.

This is especially true of the recommendation that there should be international participation in the proposed special courts with its provision for foreign judges, prosecutors and investigators.

The Task Force recommendation of hybrid courts follows its observation that there is a near-total lack of confidence among the Tamil polity and victims of human rights violations in the impartiality of the Sri Lankan judicial system where it concerns the security forces.

There are several cases where defendants who were members of the security forces have been acquitted by the courts. The most recent example is the case of assassinated Jaffna parliamentarian Nadarajah Raviraj. For having won the war, the security forces are now routinely described as ‘war heroes’ by government and opposition leaders.

But the issue is whether the judicial system can ignore the factor of ethnicity unless state institutions, including the judicial system, are reformed to ensure justice in the context of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.

The challenge for the government will be to implement the recommendations of the Task Force in a manner that is politically viable. The government’s hold on power will be stable so long as the two main coalition partners are in agreement.

Persuading the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) component of the government – now headed by President Maithripala Sirisena – to go along with politically controversial decisions that are taken on inter-ethnic relations appears to be the difficulty that the administration is facing.

Where constitutional reform is concerned, the SLFP has already stated its position in a conservative manner. It has said it will not go beyond the unitary state and isn’t in favour of ratifying constitutional change through a referendum that reduces the scope for reform.

In the meantime, the government’s continual postponement of local government elections over the past two years is an indication of its reluctance to face the electorate at this time.

There are two campaigns that the government has to speedily embark on in the present context. The first is to persuade the international community that the government’s dominance over the polity is by no means an assured fact.

For its part, the government needs to constantly take the majority of people with it especially in regard to measures that are controversial and arouse deep-seated emotions. This is no easy task when nationalist forces are waiting in the wings to take over.

The second campaign for the government to undertake would be with the general population – to persuade it that the recommendations of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms are in line with its commitments to the international community.

Indeed, the government needs to convince the people that these commitments are in the best interests of the country.