The Pulse

Sri Lanka Under the Microscope

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The Pulse

Sri Lanka Under the Microscope

The international community has been pushing for progress on human rights in Sri Lanka. Time may be running out.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay will be visiting Sri Lanka from August 25 to 31. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is still focused on Sri Lanka—as mandated by a United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution passed on Sri Lanka last March, the second in a twelve-month space. Among other things, that resolution called for the Sri Lankan government to implement the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommendations. It also encouraged it to collaborate with UN special procedures mandate holders.

As stipulated in the more recent HRC resolution, OHCHR will present an update during the HRC’s 24 session this September in Geneva. Given the prevailing trends on the island, it is unlikely that Ms. Pillay’s presentation next month will be a very positive one.

Also on the international front, Sri Lanka will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) this November, though many have expressed concerns about this. After all, the administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa recently oversaw the unconstitutional impeachment of its chief justice and the country continues to be plagued by numerous setbacks that are hard to overlook. Some have argued that the fact that Sri Lanka will soon chair the Commonwealth for the next twenty-four months undermines the credibility of the institution and proves that the club values democratic principles in name only.

At this point, a major boycott of CHOGM appears unlikely; a widespread downgrading of diplomatic participation is probably the most that human rights advocates could hope for. The November summit may mark the beginning of sustained advocacy initiatives leading up to the 25th session of the HRC in March 2014.

The thrust of the current case against Sri Lanka has to do with the Rajapaksa administration’s approach to governance, reconciliation and accountability post-war and the fact that the administation has almost completely ignored two HRC resolutions. Moreover, the administration has made little progress in implementing any of the most essential LLRC recommendations. Meanwhile, there continue to be major incidents across the country—including military murders in response to peaceful demonstrations and ethnic or religiously motivated violence—where the alleged offenders don’t ever seem to be punished or even investigated. An outbreak of political violence or widespread claims of electoral fraud during the upcoming Provincial Council elections in September would further undermine Sri Lanka’s claims of genuine progress (aside from economic development) post-war.

At the HRC’s 25th session, OHCHR will deliver a “comprehensive report followed by a discussion on the implementation of the present resolution…” By that time, major discussions will have taken place behind the scenes in January and February as it relates to Sri Lanka’s non-compliance with a second HRC resolution and the possibility of further action at the Council.

Many countries are undoubtedly growing tired of keeping Sri Lanka on the formal agenda of the HRC. The fact that Sri Lanka is not facing an urgent humanitarian crisis coupled with recent developments elsewhere—such as the Middle East—makes this somewhat understandable.

The HRC was designed to raise awareness and address human rights issues across the globe, but it should also help hold perpetrators of human rights abuses to account. The history of the HRC suggests that awareness-raising is imminently achievable, but going beyond that is difficult. Sri Lanka is not going to remain on the HRC’s formal agenda forever. (The Rajapaksa administration knows this too—which partly explains why its representatives and envoys consistently plead for more “time and space” at venues like the HRC).

In the case of post-war Sri Lanka, time may be running out. It will be interesting to see how things develop over the next six to eight months—partly because of the implications it could have for redress, human rights, governance and international pressure as it relates to Sri Lanka.  Equally important, what happens during that time could have much broader implications for future advocacy efforts in other countries which come under intense international scrutiny. Hence, now is the time to monitor developments closely.

Taylor Dibbert is an international consultant based in Washington, DC. He is the author of numerous articles and the book Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth.