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Sri Lanka After Geneva: Quo Vadis?

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Photo courtesy of Daily News

Yet another resolution on Sri Lanka has passed in the UN Human Rights Council, 20 member states voting for it, seven against and 20 abstaining. This resolution will facilitate the continuation of the Accountability Project to collect and preserve evidence in respect of the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity and includes economic crimes. Interestingly, the Supreme Court has given leave to proceed in the case citing a host of high level officials including former presidents, finance ministers, governors of the Central Bank and members of the Monetary Board for accountability for the current economic crisis. The final comprehensive report on the resolution is due in 2025 with reporting in the intervening years.

The resolution contains strong language and reference to more recent developments. Based on the report of the High Commissioner to the Council, it highlights the centrality of impunity as the cancer on the enjoyment and protection of human rights and governance in Sri Lanka.

The Government of Sri Lanka has rejected the resolution on the grounds that the inclusion of economic crimes exceeds the mandate of the council and reference to universal jurisdiction for accountability and indeed the Accountability Project violates the constitution of Sri Lanka. These are fallacious arguments; there is no explicit stipulation of such a nature in the constitution and were intended to muddy the waters on the grounds of the current situation in Sri Lanka – you do not kick a country when it is down – and the usual argument about the threats to national sovereignty in the Global South from the Global North. While 20 countries abstained, predominantly from the Global South, some perhaps on the basis of the current situation and their reluctance to take an openly critical stance when Sri Lanka is in dire straits, that they did not vote against the resolution indicates that they too shared some, if not most or all, of the concerns included in the resolution. Critics of the government will point to the final vote as a stinging rebuke of the good will enjoyed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, particularly among the Global North. They will not be wrong in so far as the attacks on the aragalaya and its supporters have taken their toll and have been seen very much as an intensification of the hostile position of the Rajapaksas towards dissent and fundamental rights.  While the Global North has pledged its support to alleviate Sri Lanka’s current distress, they have in effect held their noses and voted for the resolution on the grounds that the deterioration in the human rights situation cannot be ignored.

The Wickremesinghe government maintains that it is focusing predominantly on the economic situation. It has nevertheless indicated that it will replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with a National Security Act although it has flouted the de facto moratorium on the use of the PTA. Foreign Minister Ali Sabry has also made statements about setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and made references to the South African commission. The issue remains in respect of impunity and its corrosive impact on governance. Does the government recognise the current crisis as one of governance with impunity at its centre? Does it recognise that it cannot separate the political and the economic, that the whole point about the aragalaya was about wholescale reform – regime change leading to systemic change? The Rehabilitation Bill and the now revoked High Security Zones indicate that the government in effect does not separate the two when it comes to its overarching objective of stifling dissent under the guise of law and order and stability.

The above is the challenge the government faces, of legality versus legitimacy, of division versus unity and reconciliation to face the economic challenges ahead and to bear the further sacrifices they entail. The distinction between a good aragalaya and a bad one committed to overthrowing the state with violence and the arrest and detention of thousands on spurious grounds and in defiance of their fundamental rights must surely risk another phase of the aragalaya, more intense and even violent than what has been seen so far. There has been a tendency in our politics, every 20 years or so, to purge the polity with the blood of the youth. God forbid that this should happen again. Yet the deeply insensitive and authoritarian response to dissent so far, suggests otherwise. We need a government that the people trust, one that enjoys their confidence and one that will speak with them in terms of why we have to make the sacrifices and bear the burden necessary to get us out of the horrendous mess we have allowed ourselves to get into.

There is a crying need for a change in the paradigm of governance, of populism and impunity, lack of transparency and accountability. We cannot all afford the subsidies we have enjoyed so far from cradle to grave; we cannot permit parties to promise 10,000 more jobs in the public service at every election and 10,000 rupees more for those already in it. We have a public service of some 1.5 million for a population of 22 million. We have to rid ourselves of state owned enterprises that are losing millions by the day. We have to raise taxes, not reduce the tax base like Gotabaya Rajapaksa disastrously did and we have to demilitarise, in particular cut the defence budget. Thirteen years after the war we have over 250,000 members of the armed forces and the military budget eclipses the total monies spent on education and health. Most of this money is spent on salaries and pensions.

Importantly, we have to ensure cash transfers to the most in need, so that they do not bear the burden of adjustment out of the crisis, disproportionately. The IMF too agrees with this. We have to eliminate the politicisation of welfare – those most in need of welfare are not beneficiaries of existing programmes.

The resolution in Geneva has focused attention on our pathetic human rights situation. What are the immediate consequences of its passage?

The Human Rights Council cannot mandate states to take action; the only organ of the UN able to do this is the Security Council. However, states can in their bilateral relations and through their regional groupings sign up for actions that flow from a resolution in the Human Rights Council. In Sri Lanka’s case we come under scrutiny again in Geneva early next year when there is a Universal Periodic Review of human rights. The one area that the government should be concerned about is the retention of the GSP Plus trade concession granted by the European Union, based on ratification and implementation of 27 labour standards and human rights conditions. We lost GSP Plus under the Rajapaksas and regained it under the Yahapalanaya government. We could be in danger of losing it again.

While the international community both Global North and South will provide us with humanitarian assistance and, once the staff agreement with the IMF is signed by the end of the year or early next year with bridging finance, diplomatic pressure from the Global North on the human rights front will not let up. There is always the spectre of universal jurisdiction in respect of war crimes, however unlikely it may seem at present. Key countries on the economic front namely India and Japan abstained while China voted against. The vast majority of Western European and North American states voted for the resolution with key members amongst them namely the UK, US, Canada and Germany being a part of the Core Group, along with over 20 others that sponsored the resolution.  Although the President announced that Japan will chair the conference of creditors the Japanese are on record saying that no such agreement to do so has been reached.

The resolution keeps Sri Lanka on the international agenda and provides, if not a framework for future action, a reference point. In the past, the relationship between resolutions at the Council and whatever steps have been taken on transitional justice at home has been one of correlation, if not causality. More needs to be done and resolutions at the council will be indispensable in this regard, even if they are not sufficient.

We have the IMF, the World Bank, ADB and the other multilateral official and unofficial financial institutions on the one hand, the UN Human Rights Council, the European Parliament and the international human rights organizations on the other, all drawing attention to the situation in Sri Lanka in terms of its economics and politics which taken together constitute the very essence of governance. We have to recognise this and address it and slay the beast of impunity once and for all.

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