The band-aid plastered on Sri Lanka’s badly broken government last December was never going to be able to hold it all back. The bad stuff has begun to seep out again, and is now all set to travel to Geneva. President Maithripala Sirisena has said his country does not want to be pressured by other countries in resolving the issues that remain from the ethnic conflict that ended in 2009, and that Sri Lanka needed “space” to settle these problems. This is no less than an about turn on a commitment given by the Sirisena government in 2015 at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, removed by Sirisena last November and reappointed the following month after the Supreme Court held his dismissal illegal, has come out against the President, and declared that the government will keep its commitment to the UNHRC. The President is sending his own delegation of handpicked parliamentarians to the session, which is prepping to make a separate representation when the UNHRC takes up Sri Lanka’s case on March 22-23. This latest episode in a now four-year long political theatre risks making Sri Lanka a laughing stock on the global stage. Colombo rushed to set up the Office of the Missing Persons to look into the complaints by families of thousands of men and women who disappeared during the nearly four-decade-long war only last March, after being rapped severely on the knuckles for not keeping to even a fresh timeline on its UNHRC commitments. In October, it rushed a bill through parliament for setting up an Office of Reparations, after a long and polarising debate. Sri Lanka had also agreed to set up “a commission for truth, justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence” and the Wickremesinghe government submitted a concept note to the Cabinet in this regard earlier this year. But there is no word yet on the other commitment to establish “a judicial mechanism… to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law, as applicable” which would include “independent judicial and prosecutorial institutions led by individuals known for their integrity and impartiality”.
Both Wickremesinghe and Sirisena have made it plain that it would be better to draw a line under the accountability for war crimes question and “move on”. Both have their eyes on the upcoming presidential election. For those affected by the war and hoping for justice, the wait just got longer.