With many casualties of its bloody civil war still registered as missing persons, and as critics rail against the country for struggling to eke out transitional justice for wartime atrocities
, Sri Lanka has many mountains to climb before it can close this painful chapter in its modern history. Beset by challenges in the aftermath of the war that ended in 2009, the island nation found itself the center of attention in the early stages of the 37th
session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Switzerland, which kicked off on Feb. 26 and runs till March 23. Some pointed to the painful situation playing out in the town of Kilinochchi in Northern Sri Lanka, where protesters clamoring for the truth of loved ones who remain missing have now demonstrated for over 370 days. Others lamented how so many cases of enforced disappearances in the North and East of the country during the 26-year-long armed conflict against the Tamil Tigers, which began in 1986, could remain unresolved today. The situation is made more deplorable by the fact that Sri Lanka's parliament has already passed the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Act.
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President Maithripala Sirisena signed the act last July, paving the way for the Constitutional Council to recommend a chairman. However, seven months later none of the council's nominations have been appointed. One wonders how it will be possible to achieve reconciliation
under such circumstances — without providing speedy justice to victims of wartime atrocities, and without trying to seek the truth about what happened to those who disappeared without trace. When the UNHRC met in 2012, 2013 and 2014 it passed a series of resolutions against Sri Lanka calling for investigations into war crimes. But international opinion softened in line with regime change on Jan. 8, 2015 as people took solace in the increased likelihood that wide-ranging reforms would be carried out, good governance would replace bad, and democracy would be restored. The "new" government has had three years to live up to its original promise, racking up successes and failures along the way. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which reduced the executive powers of the president and strengthened parliament, ranks among the success stories. It was buttressed by the introduction of new panels to foster the healing process, such as the Right to Information Commission, not to mention independent commissions for the police and the judiciary. Progressive moves like this have given the people of Sri Lanka breathing space so they can express their opinions without fear as the country marches toward democracy. Sri Lankan armed forces and rebels alike committed wrongdoing during the civil war. Activists say a police culture of routinely torturing suspects must end for true reconciliation to take effect. (Photo by Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP)
Moreover, journalists no longer have to fear being abducted or killed in retaliation for writing a certain story or taking a "controversial" photo. Conditions have improved considerably but there is still much to be done. At the UN-orchestrated Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Sri Lanka in November, several member countries demanded the government implement safeguards against torture and repeal its Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which was viewed as infringing on suspects' human rights. However, to the best of my knowledge, nothing has been done except presenting a draft of the repealed act at the latest cabinet meeting, where it was rejected. Meanwhile, the number of extrajudicial killings conducted with impunity spiked in Sri Lanka in 2017, ending at 10 for the year as a whole. Yet all hope is not lost — far from it. Foremost in the minds of many who are engaged in seeing Sri Lanka prosper and heal is the expectation the nation's new charter will include a solution for reconciliation through power sharing with the Tamils in the North and East of the country. The police must also modernize and show zero tolerance for torturing suspects, a practice that victims of police abuse say remains rampant today. Another outstanding problem is the PTA, a draconian piece of legislation that must be repealed to align with acceptable international norms. In March 2017 the UNHRC adopted a resolution granting the government of Sri Lanka two more years to pursue and fulfill its post-war commitments. Specifically, this referred to ongoing reconciliation efforts and alleged war crimes. According to a resolution passed by the UNHCR in 2015, Prince Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the body's high commissioner, must submit a written report on the progress made in this area on March 21. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said a Sri Lankan delegation will also brief the council in March of any progress made in the battle for greater respect for human rights. Other moves by the nation's president, who is Sinhalese, are less encouraging. Last year he rejected a proposal by the UNHRC for a transitional justice mechanism featuring international judges. A Sri Lankan Tamil woman holds a picture of a missing loved one during a gathering to remember those who have been missing for nearly a decade since the end of the country's drawn out separatist war, in the capital Colombo on Feb. 14. (Photo by Ishara s. Kodikara/AFP)
Moreover, Sri Lanka has been pressed to establish a special court to investigate war crimes
that were allegedly committed by both the armed forces and the insurgents. Some claim government forces killed 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final stages of the civil war. President Sirisena was elected six years after it ended with the backing of the Tamil community, partly because he pledged to hold the army accountable for the "excesses" it perpetrated during the civil war. That was in 2015. But little has been done since. In the following year, parliament heard consultations on the formation of a new constitution. An interim report by the steering committee of the Constitutional Assembly was released on Sept. 21, 2017, followed by days of debate in parliament and also in the public domain. Not everyone was happy with the content of the new charter, which spurred protests from Buddhist monks. Even former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, now firmly ensconced in the opposition camp, said it threatened to divide the country. The government responded by saying it was merely a draft that could be amended further down the road. However, we are still waiting for a final draft to be submitted to the authorities. In order to heal rifts and get communities singing from the same hymn sheet in terms of what the charter needs to include, constructive dialogue is essential. That would help foster a society that nurtures a culture of peace based on mutual respect, understanding and cooperation. But since local elections were held last year, the government's reformist agenda seems to have had some of the wind knocked out of its sails. Ahead of these expected reforms, the ruling coalition government experienced a serious setback during the local elections as Rajapaksa led his Podu Jana Peramuna party to a sweeping victory. This sent shock waves through the region and poses a new challenge to the government's reformist agenda. Constitutional approval now hinges on a referendum and a parliamentary majority (two-thirds or more). Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse takes part in a press conference in Colombo on Feb. 12. Sri Lanka's ruling alliance was humiliated on Feb. 11 in local elections seen as a test of its leadership as the party of former strongman pulled off a stunning landslide victory, final results showed. (Photo by Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)
The chief reason for the government's defeat in the recent elections was that it failed to fulfill the election pledges it made in 2015. It has taken far too long to punish corrupt politicians under Rajapaksa's regime who misused their office and were guilty of cronyism. It has failed to address the high cost of living and growing nationalist sentiment among voters in Southern Sinhala, many of whom were angered by its decision to hound the army for alleged war crimes. As if it did not already have enough on its plate, the government was also charged with corruption over a bond scam involving the Central Bank. In a recent message, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Asia said: "The [government] hasn't secured a single conviction in the cases of 10 journalists who were murdered in Sri Lanka in retaliation for their work since 1992." A prominent example would be the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga, whose case has remained unsolved since 2008. Recent reports say a retired senior superintendent confessed to having destroyed crime-scene evidence that would have implicated certain figures in her killing. He claims to have done this on the orders of his superior officer, the now-retired deputy inspector general of police (DIG). The DIG allegedly told his juniors to deliberately sabotage the investigation and destroy evidence found in Lasantha's car. He reportedly attempted to scuttle the investigation to protect military intelligence officers who were responsible for Lasantha's assassination. Meanwhile, the High Commissioner of the UNHRC has called on the UN Human Rights Council to explore other avenues that could foster accountability in Sri Lanka. He has also reiterated his appreciation for the constructive engagement of the government with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and other UN human rights mechanisms since January 2015. Though he expressed concern over the lack of progress made in terms of accountability and reform, he said he was encouraged to see the human rights situation improving. He urged the UNHRC to continue to play a critical role in encouraging greater accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. The government must now prepare for another Universal Periodic Review from 7-18 May. Kingsley Karunaratne is the administrative secretary of the Rule of Law Forum, which is affiliated with the Asian Human Rights Commission. His organization works towards the radical rethinking and fundamental redesigning of justice institutions in order to protect and promote human rights.