Absence of war is not peace: the saying is true of Sri Lanka today. While its civil war ended four years ago, and roads have been rebuilt, human rights protections are getting weaker. The personal tragedies of the conflict’s victims have yet to be acknowledged and accounted for. The climate required for reconciliation does not yet exist.
The UN Human Rights Council, whose new session has just begun in Geneva, has a unique opportunity to pressure Sri Lanka’s authorities into action. In doing so, it would preserve the hope for accountability and reconciliation harboured by all Sri Lankans. The present culture of impunity must end.
Last year, the council passed a resolution calling on Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations identified by its own government, in a report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The Elders, a group of independent leaders who work for peace and human rights, to which we belong, were fully supportive of the resolution at the time. It was a decisive step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, too little has happened since. Lasting reconciliation; upholding the rule of law; protection of human rights: it is difficult to feel positive about any of these essential objectives today.
On February 16, Faraz Shauketaly, a prominent investigative journalist, was shot in his home and gravely wounded – the latest incident in a worrying trend of attacks against critics of the Government. “Extrajudicial killings, abductions and enforced disappearance in the past year” showed no signs of abating, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a report last month.
The impeachment in January of the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, was a particularly disturbing sign that the authorities do not plan to tolerate dissent or disagreement, showing blatant disregard for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.
There has, furthermore, been almost no meaningful action to implement the LLRC’s recommendations despite the Government having adopted a National Action Plan last July. Deadlines have been pushed back and parts of the Government are threatening to renege on, or weaken, previous pledges.
There needs to be an independent and credible international investigation into alleged violations of human rights perpetrated by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and other rebel factions in the final months of the civil war during which, according to the UN, as many as 40,000 civilians were killed.
How the council chooses to act will have a profound impact on Sri Lanka’s standing in the world. In this regard, we urge the Commonwealth to seriously reconsider appointing Sri Lanka as its chair for 2013-2015, as it currently plans to do. In this role, Colombo would host the biennial meeting of Commonwealth heads of government this November.
Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, has already threatened to boycott the summit if the situation does not improve. The UK Foreign Affairs Select Committee has called on David Cameron to do the same. As Elders, we welcome this forthright stance and recall the Commonwealth’s founding commitments to democracy, freedom, peace and the rule of law.
The Human Rights Council – still a relatively young institution, created in 2006 – must show that it can build on its successes from one session to the next: if last year’s resolution gave Sri Lankans hope, this year’s session must go further to keep their hope alive.
Other crises have flared in the past year. Syria and Mali rightly figure high on the council’s agenda. The case of Sri Lanka offers a different test: of the council’s ability to hold governments to account even when global attention has turned elsewhere.
A version of this article also appeared in The Times of India and La Tribune de Genève.