The Pulse

The Geopolitics of Sri Lanka’s Transitional Justice

Western countries are less interested in pressuring Sri Lanka now that Rajapaksa is no longer in charge.

By Ana Pararajasingham for
The Geopolitics of Sri Lanka’s Transitional Justice

A.L.A. Azeez, Ambassador of Sri Lanka, addresses the Conference on Disarmament’s High-Level Segment on February 26, 2019.

Credit: Flickr/ UN Geneva

On March 21, at the 40th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Sri Lanka was granted another two-year extension to implement Resolution 30/1, “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka.” The resolution was originally passed on October 1, 2015, meaning the extension will give the Sri Lankan state almost six years to implement the resolution. Furthermore, unlike prior resolutions passed between March 2012 and March 2014, Resolution 30/1 did not insist on the probe into crimes committed during the civil war to be conducted by international investigators. Instead, it provided for a hybrid arrangement involving both international and local judges and prosecutors to participate in the investigations.

In the meantime, there has been hardly any pressure on Sri Lanka to meet its obligations. This was despite President Maithripala Sirisena declaring on November 2017 that there won’t be “international war crimes tribunals or foreign judges,” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, on February 16, 2019, asking the Tamils to “forget the past and move forward,” and the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, announcing on March 20, 2019 that the country’s constitution does not allow foreign judges, dismissing the idea of a hybrid court, an integral part of Resolution 30/1.

It is plain that as far as the Sri Lankan government is concerned there is no intention to implement Resolution 30/1. More to the point, it appears even the states that backed the resolution are not serious about its implementation — a major shift in the approach pursued prior to January 2015.

This shift became evident in April 2016 when Samantha Power, then the U.S. representative to the United Nations, declared that Sri Lanka had, “since January 2015 emerged as a global champion of human rights and democratic accountability” — this despite no progress being made by the Sri Lankan state to implement Resolution 30/1. In a similar vein,  on January 28, 2019, ignoring the ongoing protests by the mothers of the disappeared, the continued militarization of the Tamil homeland in northern Sri Lanka, and the Sri Lankan army, navy, and air force continuing  to occupy private land owned by civilians, the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina B. Teplitz,  tweeted that “Celebrating differences while embracing a single national identity is a value the US & #LKA share.”

Prior to October 2015, resolutions passed by the UNHRC were followed by pressure on Sri Lanka to implement these resolutions. For example, in November 2013, seven months after the UN had passed a resolution calling for independent investigations into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper boycotted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held in Colombo, citing the absence of accountability by the host country for serious violations of international humanitarian standards during and after the civil war. Then-U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron attended CHOGM in Colombo but pressed for a credible investigation into alleged war crimes and laid an ultimatum before the Sri Lankan government for a probe into the charges of human rights violations and war crimes. In December 2013, the United States warned Sri Lanka that the international community’s “patience would start to wear thin” over Colombo’s failure to investigate war crimes allegations. Then in February 2014 Nisha Biswal, then the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, during her visit to Sri Lanka,  went onto express  U.S. concerns  about the worsening human rights situation.

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In dealing with Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes, the approach pursued by the international actors prior to 2015 was thus markedly different to that pursued since 2015. The change clearly highlights the geopolitics behind the war crimes-related resolutions passed at the UNHRC since March 2012.

Until January 2015, Sri Lanka’s president was Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had strengthened the Colombo-Beijing axis in return for China’s assistance in crushing the Tamil rebellion. Wen Liao, chairwoman of the U.K. based Longford Advisors, pointed to this this in an article aptly titled “China Crosses the Rubicon,” written within a month of Colombo’s Beijing-assisted victory. According to her, for two decades China was guided by the concept of “peaceful rise,” but “on Sri Lanka’s beachfront battlefields, China’s ‘peaceful rise’ was completed.” Today, having gained a foothold in the strategically significant island of Sri Lanka, China seeks to shape the diplomatic agenda in order to increase China’s options while constricting those of potential adversaries.

This did not go unnoticed by Washington. A December 2009, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, “Sri Lanka: Re-charting U.S. Strategy after the War,” noted that Sri Lanka’s “strategic drift” toward China “will have consequences for U.S. interests in the region.” Declaring that “the United States cannot afford to ‘lose’ Sri Lanka,” the report called for increasing “U.S. leverage vis-à-vis Sri Lanka” by adopting a multifaceted, broader and more robust approach to secure U.S. interests.

The opportunity to pursue such a policy presented itself in March 2011 when a UN Panel of Experts appointed by the UN secretary general found “credible allegations” that as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final months of the civil war, mostly as a result of indiscriminate shelling by the Sri Lankan military.

Armed with this report, the United States sponsored a resolution that was passed at the UNHRC in March 2012 calling on Colombo to address alleged abuses of international humanitarian law. In March 2013 and in March 2014, the UNHRC adopted similar resolutions calling on Sri Lanka to undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes.

In late November 2014, there was an unexpected development when one of Rajapaksa’s senior ministers, Maithripala Sirisena, resigned his position to run against Rajapaksa in the presidential election to be held in January 2015. The West-leaning United National Party (UNP) endorsed Sirisena as a “common candidate,” further undermining Rajapaksa’s attempt to seek an unprecedented third term in office. Sirisena won the presidential elections and promptly appointed Wickremesinghe, the leader of the UNP, as the country’s prime minister.

With a West-leaning prime minister in office, and the China-friendly Rajapaksa gone, Washington began to ease its tough stand on Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes. The first indications came when Sri Lanka sought and obtained Washington’s help to postpone the release of an UNHRC report on Sri Lankan war crimes from March to September 2015. At the September/October UNHRC hearings on Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes, the United States secured an extension of two years for Sri Lanka to implement the UNHRC Resolution passed on that occasion (Resolution 30/1), which called for the investigations to be undertaken by a hybrid court instead of an independent international court unlike the previous resolutions. In March 2019, when Sri Lanka was found to have made little progress, a further extension of two years was provided.

Apparently, as long Sri Lanka’s government leans toward the West, the “stick” has been abandoned in favor of the “carrot,” underscoring the geopolitics that underpin calls for accountability over Sri Lanka’s war crimes.

Ana Pararajasingham was Director-Programmes with the Centre for Just Peace and Democracy (CJPD). He is the author of “Sri Lanka’s Endangered Peace Process and the Way Forward” (2007) and editor of “Sri Lanka 60 Years of ‘independence and Beyond” (2009).