Sri Lanka’s post-civil war reconciliation mechanisms mired in controversy

Sri Lanka’s post-civil war reconciliation mechanisms mired in controversy

Colombo Correspondent,
Sri Lanka Air Force airman during training for UN peacekeeping operations. File photo: AP

Sri Lanka once again finds itself trapped between the Western prescription for its post-war reconciliation path and local fears of an equality-driven emphasis on healing its traumatic past which pitted the Sinhalese against the Tamils in a civil war that ended in May 2009.

Critics of the UNP-SLFP coalition government have warned that the United Nations (UN) request to repatriate Colonel Kalana Amunupure, the commander of the Sri Lankan of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, would have serious repercussions on the army while the human rights lobby has demanded that the Counter Terrorism Act (CTA), which is expected to replace the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), needs further safeguards against rights violations. There are also Sinhalese fears that the recently introduced ‘Office for Reparations Bill’ will create conditions for those who indulged in terror acts to pass off as victims and obtain compensation.

As for the CTA, the fears are that it may be lenient on those accused of terrorism and provide escape routes for LTTE members. However, paradoxically, the argument presented by the US-based Human Rights Watch was that provisions within the CTA could be used to prohibit peaceful protests and ban non-governmental organisations while noting that curbs on police powers are still insufficient.

Meanwhile, weeks after President Maithripala Sirisena made his appeal to the UN General Assembly not to brand Sri Lanka’s armymen as war criminals, the country has to deal with the local sentiments that will impact its post-war reconciliation goals following the UN request to recall Col Amunupure. The UN maintains that Amunupure has to be cleared of human rights violations purportedly levelled against him, something the military and the government denies, although agreeing to go along with the UN stand. The Sri Lankan military spokesman told the media that the armed forces would comply with the UN but appeal for the good name of Amunupure, stating that he “is not a war criminal”.

Since the military could be tarnished as a result of the recall, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has warned and urged that the government request the basis on which the UN to took its decision. The failure to address the issue adequately would give Western outfits sufficient reasons to continue levelling accusations of human rights violations against the army, SLPP Chairman Professor G L Peiris told the press earlier this week.

“We believe there is no basis for the UN allegation. We want to find out what the justification is for recalling a Lankan Military officer from the peacekeeping mission,” Peiris said, declaring that the government has a responsibility to protect the good name of the armed forces. The CTA is seen by the SLPP as the West’s means to exert pressure especially when it has been cited as an example of the government’s failure to maintain high levels of foreign relations and diplomacy.

There is criticism that the draft CTA provides loopholes for LTTE members to be dealt with leniently. The SLPP is categorical in its opposition to the CTA that was approved by the cabinet although amendments are expected at the committee stage of the debate when it is presented to parliament. Rajapaksa’s party alleges that the draft legislation would prevent taking legal action against those accused of terrorism regardless of the crimes they may have committed. The CTA has generally been hailed from a human rights perspective and is being seen as increasing protections against torture, coerced confessions and reducing pretrial detention.

The CTA is seen as a crucial piece of legislation to ensure that the GSP+ concession, which Sri Lanka lost in August 2010 for alleged human rights violations, is not slapped back again. The GSP+ cancellation resulted in a loss of export revenue to the tune of Rs 150-250 billion, till it was reinstated in 2017.  Currently facing a financial crisis, Sri Lanka is not unaware that the saga of post-war reconciliation is linked to western powers who can decide how their stand on post-war decisions would impact the country’s economic future.

However, the passing into law of the ‘Office for Reparations Bill’ earlier this month, as part of a mechanism included in 2015 in the United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 (which was co-sponsored by the Sri Lankan government), is a strong case for Colombo that it is carrying out what was promised after the war ended in 2009. But, as in the case of other recent events, the Office for Reparation Bill too has evoked mixed reactions. While there has been the usual criticism, with the SLPP claiming that it would provide terrorists compensation and not justice for their crimes, the fact that the Office is for all Sri Lankans, makes it a powerful tool for even Sinhalese and Muslims to receive compensation. Thus, implemented wisely, it could meet significant post-conflict objectives, peace building experts point out.

The fear that ‘terrorists’ might could get compensation, however, could overshadow apprehensions such as that echoed by former army commander, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, who asserted that he does not approve of any mechanism which compensates a terrorist organisation or any group which has acted against the state.

Gen Fonseka, currently a minister in the coalition government, told the media that he was not opposed to those who had not carried out any anti-state activities getting compensation.

“If a member of the armed forces gets injured or killed in action, that person gets compensation, but I do not agree that such a measure should be available to a member of a terrorist group,” he was quoted in the local media as saying. Analysts point out that comments by politicians from all sides of the divide reflect that putting post-war mechanisms in place would be complicated and would need mature handling by the government which, on its part, could tell the international community that it is capable in working out the post-war reconciliation process.