Following several weeks of intense lobbying by the Sri Lankan government, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) has agreed to defer the release of an update to an expected human rights report regarding war crimes allegations. A 2011 U.N. report from the Secretary-General’s office alleged that the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatists committed war crimes in the final years of the country’s civil war. Since then, Sri Lanka has been subject to international scrutiny over its human rights record. The HRC report, which was scheduled for a March 2015 release, has now been postponed until September as part of a “one time only” grant.
The decision by the U.N. comes after Maithripala Sirisena trounced sitting president Mahinda Rajapaksa in the early national elections held in January 2015. Rajapaksa’s government was intransigent regarding international efforts to investigate potential war crimes in Sri Lanka, instead preferring to set up domestic mechanisms for investigation that lacked independence and held narrow mandates. Sirisena’s government, however, seems to be interested in a different approach.
The U.N. decision is an important boon for the Sirisena government, which is not quite as reluctant as the Rajapaksa government to work with the international community on war crimes investigations. Sirisena’s government has additionally taken positive steps in addressing human rights and minority rights concerns in Sri Lanka. Under Rajapaksa, many of Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils, particularly in the country’s Northern Province, lived under excessively militarized conditions, drawing international criticism. The new government has attempted to improve conditions in the country’s north. For example, Sirisena’s government appointed a civilian successor to the Northern Province’s ex-military governor.
Additionally, Sirisena reversed a Rajapaksa government mandate which banned travel by non-Sri Lankans to the country’s Northern Province. Reversing the ban, which was made out of concern that foreign independent observers could gather evidence of war crimes during the civil war, sends a positive message of transparency to the international community. Indeed, Sirisena’s government has been proactive about its engagement with the United Nations as well. Jayantha Dhanapala, an adviser on foreign affairs to the new government and former U.N. under-secretary-general, was dispatched to brief U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on the new government’s plans to address post-war accountability. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s new foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera, met with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to negotiate a delay in the release of the report.
Sirisena’s approach to the question of an international investigation does have its limits. For example, both during his election campaign and since coming to power, Sirisena has said that he would ensure that senior Sri Lankan officials, including the former president, would be safe from international prosecution. Additionally, though Rajapaksa was criticized internationally for setting up toothless domestic investigative commissions, Sirisena has said that his government also prefers the route of handling investigations domestically without excessive foreign involvement. With the delay of the U.N. report, Sirisena’s government has the opportunity to demonstrate that its approach to domestic investigative commissions will be more satisfactory to international observers than Rajapaksa’s. Whether his government manages to realize this outcome remains to be seen.
Hussein notes that the delay in the report will “allow for a stronger and more comprehensive report.” He added that Sirisena had given clear signals and commitments “on a whole range of important human rights issues — which the previous government had absolutely refused to do.” The delay is a vote of confidence in the Sirisena government at this time, but an already bad public relations problem for the Sri Lankan government could get far worse if the government fails to deliver on its promises. Sirisena’s proactive approach to addressing his predecessor’s fumbles on post-war accountability have won his government more time. Now the onus is on his government to use this time to deliver a realistic path toward justice with the cooperation of the international community.