Wednesday, 18 February 2015 00:00
Sri Lanka has caught a breather after the report to be presented at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) was deferred to its 30th session in September, but it also comes with a definite deadline from the international community to ensure that real reconciliation happens on the ground.
Since the appointment of President Maithripala Sirisena, the Government has laid out a much more balanced foreign policy, losing almost no time in resetting its engagement with the world. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera as per his job has been spending more time in the air flying to different capitals and having extensive talks to mend Sri Lankaâ€™s badly bruised image. In the few short weeks he has held office relations with the US and India have been rejuvenated and even the knotty issue of the European Union banning fish exports has been touched upon.
Understandably, it will take many more months of discussions for Sri Lanka to emerge from its hazy reputation. However, now that the promises have been made Colombo is under the eagle eye of the international community to make certain that pledged steps towards reconciliation will be implemented. Having had its patience worn thin over the years due to the feet dragging of the previous administration, the international community will be looking for swift action and possibly back tougher consequences if promises are unfulfilled.
This was never more evident than in the statement made by the UNHRC. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raâ€™ad Al Hussein has said â€śI give my personal, absolute and unshakeable commitment that the report will be published by Septemberâ€ť and that he had received a clear commitment from the new Sri Lankan authorities to cooperate on various issues related to the UN investigation. This alone shows the high stakes game Sri Lanka is engaged in.
The High Commissioner noted that the three distinguished experts, who were appointed by his predecessor Navi Pillay to advise the investigation, had informed him that, in their unanimous view, a one-off temporary deferral would be the best option to allow space for the new Government to show its willingness to cooperate on human rights issues. So far the willingness has been obvious and it has been backed by action but stronger efforts will be called for in the next few months.
Back home, the Government still has a tough balancing act. Certain key demands of Tamil politicians such as allowing land and police powers as well as demilitarising the north can have deep implications to the fragile coalition, especially with general elections round the corner. Sirisena throughout his campaign insisted military presence in the peninsula will not be reduced and he will retain the Defence Ministry post even after executive powers are trimmed. Yet, maintaining this stance and not being caught out by a wily Opposition during the next round of polls will certainly be a challenge. Extra pressure will also be exerted on the United National Party to make sure it bags sufficient seats to continue its present policy superiority.
The Government will also have to push forward on human rights issues unconnected to reconciliation but still focused on by the UNHRC. One such instance was the Welikada Prison riot in 2012, which the Government has appointed a new probe on and assured the report will be published. One thing is for certain â€“ as the weeks slip by, scrutiny will only intensify.