Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera heading the Sri Lankan Government delegation to the UNHRC’s 34th Session addressing a side event at the Palais des Nations last week. The event was organised by the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the UN in Geneva and chaired by Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN, Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha. Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms Mano Tittawella, MP and Constitutional expert Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne and Ariyasinha are also present - Pic by Sunanda Deshapriya
Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s masterful diplomacy is winning over a world eager to keep believing in Sri Lanka’s political transformation story, but the Government faces a deepening disconnect with activists and war-affected constituents at home who are losing faith in its promises to heal the wounds of a long and violent conflict
By Dharisha Bastians in Geneva
On Wednesday, 1 March, inside Room XXI of the Palais des Nations, the Sri Lankan delegation was winding up a four-day mission in Geneva on a high note.
The Government had organised a public discussion on Sri Lanka’s reconciliation efforts on the sidelines of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session. In a room filled with Tamil lobby groups, hardline Tamil diaspora representatives, international activists and Geneva-based diplomats, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and his delegation spent nearly two hours in patient engagement about Sri Lanka’s reconciliation journey, defining its successes and the many challenges that lay ahead.
In a politically-polarised room, the delegation dealt with questions sensitively, acknowledging hurt on all sides, and articulating a sincere commitment to reckon with the legacy of a long civil war.
Seated at the Serpentine Bar, a few yards away from the meeting room, Sri Lankan human rights activist Ruki Fernando is filled with angst.
Exactly three years ago, Fernando himself was the subject of heated discussion at the Human Rights Council that sits two floors above. His arrest and detention by the TID in Kilinochchi while the UNHRC was in session in March 2014 sparked an outcry against the Government in Geneva.
A long-time human rights campaigner in Sri Lanka, Ruki Fernando was too well known in activist and diplomatic circles in Geneva for the arrest to go unnoticed. By brazenly detaining a well-known human rights defender on terrorism charges while the Human Rights Council was in session, the Rajapaksa administration sealed its fate as calls mounted for the establishment of a UN inquiry into war crimes committed during the final years of the conflict. The Government released Fernando and Fr. Praveen a few days later in the face of relentless international pressure.
That was March 2014. Three years and a new Government later, Ruki Fernando’s lawyers are still fighting terrorism charges brought by the TID. Last year, he was detained by the TID at the airport as he was leaving the country.
But this bothers Fernando much less than other things happening back home, while the Government is busy winning a hearts-and-minds battle in this UN city.
Marines in Mullikulam
This year Fernando decided not to engage on Sri Lanka-related issues during his visit to Geneva and deliberately sat out of the Government’s side event last Wednesday. But when he hears that the Government delegation promised to finalise the return of private lands – most of them held by the military – by the end of 2018, the activist balks.
Fernando is still seething over news reports from home the day before announcing that Sri Lanka’s first US-trained Navy Marines had passed out of a base in Mannar last week. President Maithripala Sirisena and US Ambassador Atul Keshap attended the passing out parade, another indication of renewed military cooperation between the two countries.
For years activists like Ruki Fernando have fought alongside residents of Mullikulam, a tiny village in the southernmost part of the Mannar District who have been agitating to go back home. The military took over the village in September 2007, telling residents that they could come back in three days, Fernando relates. “There was no fighting there, but there was LTTE activity and the Army wanted to clear the area. Subsequently it was the Sri Lanka Navy that consolidated there,” he explains.
Mullikulam is now home to SLNS Barana, one of the Navy’s largest bases on Sri Lanka’s north-west coast. On 27 February, Sri Lanka’s first 164 Navy marines marched in parade at this naval base, built on the village the military had seized at the height of the conflict 10 years ago.
“To begin with, I am angry with my Government for failing to return the land to its lawful owners. Secondly, I am angry with the US Government for its complicity when the 2015 UN resolution clearly calls for the return of private lands seized by the military,” Fernando charges.
Government statements in Geneva ring hollow when they are juxtaposed against everything that is going on back home, Fernando observes.
“In 2015, there was optimism because we saw some progress with convictions in the Vishwamadu and Mirusavil cases. But 2016 was terribly disappointing with acquittals in the Kumarapuram massacre case and the Raviraj assassination. Hope is fading again,” he muses, as the sun sets over the mountains that surround the UN building.
Disillusioned activists like Ruki Fernando once cherished hope that under the ‘reformist’ Government that was elected to office in 2015, Sri Lanka would hold people accountable for grave human rights violations during the war.
“Some of us thought the local courts could handle these issues, when others insisted the Government would never do anything unless international judges were involved. Now they have been proven right,” he dejectedly explains.
Last week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein also lamented the Government’s “slow pace of progress” on transitional justice and its apparent lack of commitment to setting up a special court to conduct war crimes trials.
Fearing a nationalist backlash that could embolden former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is plotting a political comeback, the Government is skirting around accountability issues. Minister Samaraweera referred to the accountability component of the transitional justice process as the “straw that could break the camel’s back” for the Government and pleaded for more time to get down to these contentious issues at his UNHRC side event last Wednesday.
But Zeid’s complaint resonates with activists at home and abroad, who have grown increasingly concerned at the Government’s continuous backtracking on accountability pledges. Even progress on the less thorny issues of reconciliation has slowed considerably in the past few months. The Government has ordered the return of significant portions of land held in the north and east in the past two years, but the process has been painfully slow. All over the north and east, patience is running out.
Hundreds of people are protesting outside Government offices in the war-affected regions, demanding the return of their lands. Separate protests are being held by families of the disappeared still searching for answers about missing loved ones. A law was passed to set up a permanent Office of Missing Persons (OMP) in August last year, but six months later, the Office is yet to be operationalised.
Worse still, after the Government successfully pleaded its case with international actors and Tamil politicians for patience on accountability until political consensus was reached on a new constitution, members of the President’s own party are undermining the constitution-making process and casting doubts over the entire exercise.
But all of this is far removed from the Government’s interventions at the UN in Geneva, where it has somehow managed to make the world fall at its feet. The call for Sri Lanka to be given more time to make good on its commitments in the 2015 UNHRC resolution is emphatic in most diplomatic quarters. The first draft of the resolution on Sri Lanka to be adopted at the current UNHRC session bears this out.
High-profile diplomats sat for hours inside meeting rooms on the sidelines of the Council sessions, to hear the Government delegation speak of its aspirations and challenges. In private meetings with the Foreign Minister and his delegation, Geneva-based diplomats expressed support for the Government. There is even understanding from many of Sri Lanka’s international partners about the contentious question of foreign judges, and many of these countries now find themselves able to live with Government assurances that international participation in the special court will be ensured in other ways. While strong calls for an international component in Sri Lanka’s accountability mechanism continue to be made at the Council, on the vexed question of foreign judges, key countries seem inclined to accept Government assurances that international participation in the special court will be guaranteed in other ways.
‘Golden child’ of HRC
Since the fall of the Rajapaksa administration in 2015, Sri Lanka has become the golden child of the UNHRC, a triumph that member states are desperate to hold on to, in dark and uncertain times for global human rights activism and questions about the usefulness of the Council itself.
“The world was desperate for a success story and when Sri Lankan voters overthrew Rajapaksa, the country appeared to offer them one,” says Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group. “They grabbed it with both hands and haven’t let go, even as reality hasn’t lived up to the hype and the risk of a return to bad times grows,” Keenan says about the mood in Geneva towards Sri Lanka at this session of the Council.
In fact Sri Lanka experts like Keenan are beginning to wonder if the UN Human Rights Council has reached the limits of its usefulness for reforms in Sri Lanka. “The Council has no enforcement powers, so its primary impact comes from effects its actions have on Sri Lanka’s international reputation and the willingness of individual member states of the Council to follow up on UNHRC resolutions bilaterally,” he says.
With Sri Lanka’s bilateral relationships with Washington, New Delhi and the EU significantly improved since the Sirisena Government took office in January 2015, any real engagement on Sri Lanka’s progress on reconciliation or lack thereof at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, will be informed and influenced by those relationships, other observers pointed out. A fundamental foreign policy failure of the Rajapaksa administration was that it failed to understand this crucial nexus between the health of its bilateral relations with powerful countries and action on a multilateral level – at the Human Rights Council in Geneva – on its rights record. A fundamental foreign policy failure of the Rajapaksa administration was its wanton disregard of this crucial nexus between the health of its bilateral relations with powerful countries and action on a multilateral level – at the Human Rights Council in Geneva – on its rights record.
But what does this mean for human rights activism in Sri Lanka that has relied so long on international lobbying and pressure to effect change at home?
The Serpentine Bar, where Ruki Fernando sat as daylight waned last Wednesday, is famous in Sri Lankan human rights lore. It was in this cafeteria, which gets its name from its winding shape, that a young Mahinda Rajapaksa lobbied country delegations at the Human Rights Commission about widespread disappearances in Sri Lanka during the UNP Government’s brutal crackdown of the JVP youth insurgency.
The bar, which serves up a seemingly endless array of sandwiches and decent coffee, has long been a safe-space for activism, especially during the years of the Rajapaksa presidency, where Sri Lankan human rights campaigners had the opportunity to lobby state delegations and powerful international rights groups, who are almost always passing through.
One positive effect of the waning influence of the Human Rights Council on the process of change in Sri Lanka was that it may encourage Lankan activists to work more on persuading fellow citizens on the need for change, rather than directing so much of their energies towards outside actors, ICG’s Alan Keenan believes.
He says this was an understandable route when the war was on and when the Government was deeply repressive.
“But there is work to be done by both Sinhala and Tamil activists, in persuading Sinhalese voters to support the new constitution and make the case for a shared interest of all communities in ending impunity, and it cannot be done by the international community,” Keenan says.
But even as the international dynamic shifts, the Government has sustained the momentum on its engagement with different stakeholders at the Human Rights Council.
At its UNHRC side event last week, the Government delegation engaged sincerely and sometimes introspectively even about its own shortcomings; at once hopeful of progress and honest about political compulsions and difficulties. Facing off against loaded questions from Tamil lobby groups, Minister Samaraweera and his team took a measured approach, coming through strongly as a rational actor in a complex and polarised post-war story. Remarks by the Government delegation were perfectly executed, likely to play as well at home as it did inside the meeting room at the UN, filled with diplomats and international rights groups.
This was most apparent when a ‘MP’ of the Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) directed several questions at the Foreign Minister during the discussion. P. Manivannan, the same representative who had accosted Minister Samaraweera in the corridors of the UN the previous day, prefaced his questions with an anecdote from his own past, when his grandfather had been killed during the 1983 anti-Tamil riots. In his response, the Foreign Minister tackled the heart of the issue.
“After a protracted war that went on for 20 odd years, there’s a lot of hurt on all sides,” Samaraweera told Manivannan. “I agree, you have suffered a lot; likewise we know so many people in the south who have lost loved ones in bomb blasts and suicide bombings. But the time has come for us to come to terms with the past – but move on. I think it’s time that we move on as a nation.”
Nearly every Sri Lankan activist in Geneva this month will agree that the Government has perfected the art of engagement with diplomats and key actors at the UN. “The Foreign Minister’s speech at the Council was excellent as usual,” says Manjula Shankar, a lawyer who works in the Northern Province. “In reality, everything is left half done – just look at the OMP,” she complains. The Government has “charmed” everyone in Geneva, says Ruki Fernando with a wry smile.
Keenan, who was in Geneva just before the Human Rights Council session began, says the Government’s messages resonate better overseas because foreign governments are not compelled to live with the negative consequences of flawed state policies the way Sri Lankans must.
With every question that was handled with tact and honesty last Wednesday, it became more difficult to reconcile the fact that this was the same Government that struggles catastrophically with its communications at home. Delivering a message that it was willing to go the distance to achieve post-war reconciliation and lasting peace in Geneva, the Government delegation was cohesive, complementary and perfectly in sync.
But the lament of activists like Shankar and Ruki Fernando is a profound illustration that the Government’s messaging on the ground in Sri Lanka is failing; that where it is critically important, the Government is losing the support of local actors by an unwillingness to walk the talk.
At home, a serious disconnect is manifesting, as activists and core constituencies lose faith in the ability of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration to deliver on its promises to heal the wounds of war. And if the Government is losing the narrative in Sri Lanka, where it really counts, what does it matter if it wins the world?