The UN Human Rights Council's 34th session ended on March 24. Ostensibly, the session was an important moment for Sri Lanka's coalition government, which is led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Sri Lanka's compliance with a previously passed Council resolution (designed to promote human rights and transitional justice) came under review.
Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera addressed the body on Feb. 28 and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, provided a critical assessment of the government's performance during the session. On March 23, as expected, another cosponsored resolution was passed on Sri Lanka.
But here's the bottom line: The passage of another resolution on Sri Lanka, the fifth since 2012, should be viewed as a stark reminder – of both the limits of international influence via the Council and that now would be an opportune time for international actors to consider other methods of engagement with the Sri Lankan government.
Colombo's wide-ranging reform agenda has been stagnating for some time. Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to transitional justice, and building a lasting peace in a country that went through a brutal civil war – fought between Sri Lankan military forces and the separatist Tamil Tigers – from 1983 to 2009.
In a major upset, Sirisena defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa in a January 2015 election. Rajapaksa is still venerated by many ethnic Sinhalese, the majority community, for winning the war. Nonetheless, he put the country on an increasingly authoritarian, corrupt and nepotistic course, which led to his electoral demise.
With the resolution it cosponsored in October 2015, Colombo committed to an expansive transitional justice agenda, including four important mechanisms: a truth commission, a judicial mechanism to deal with alleged wartime abuses and offices to handle both disappearances and reparations. Yet none of those mechanisms are operational. Besides, there are plenty of other moves the government could have already made to prove its sincerity about transitional justice.
Sustained militarization – the military is almost exclusively Sinhalese – throughout the Tamil-dominated northern and eastern provinces remains a major issue. Relatedly, the military's continued occupation of civilian land is a big problem too. Security sector reform is an important matter that's being ignored. Based on my recent exchange with a Colombo-based human rights lawyer, fifty to seventy Tamil political prisoners are still being held in various detention centers throughout the country. The government should immediately release all of these individuals or at least bring them to trial.
More generally, Colombo has taken an intransigent approach towards international involvement in the transitional justice process, although a degree of international participation is essential to ensure that the process is credible. Furthermore, the country's political leadership, including the president and the prime minister, are still not making an articulate case for these reforms.
Transitional justice is in deep trouble and additional scrutiny via the Geneva-based body is unlikely to change that very much. From 2012 to 2014, Rajapaksa categorically rejected three resolutions on Sri Lanka. The Sirisena administration has spent nearly two years basically ignoring a resolution it had cosponsored. For better or worse, the U.S. played an important role in the passage of all five resolutions.
Sri Lanka is making a mockery of the Council. If international actors actually want to keep the pressure on the island nation, they should consider moving beyond nonbinding human-rights resolutions – perhaps by reexamining engagement (diplomatic, military, even economic) at the bilateral level – an admittedly unlikely scenario at present.
For the victims of Sri Lanka's war, particularly those residing in the country's war-torn north and east, Sirisena's ascendance has not resulted in dramatic changes to daily life. And, for the duration of his tenure, that's probably not going to change. These are inconvenient realities for many, not least because foreign money for transitional justice projects keeps pouring into the country.
Taylor Dibbert, a writer based in the Washington, D.C. area, is affiliated with the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter: @taylordibbert.
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