Even as the UNHRC last Friday reiterated the need for foreign judges to try alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena, sounding much like his predecessor declared that he would not allow foreign judges into the country. His comments came alongside former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in a public address, highlighting the sacrifices made by the Lankan military in the war with the Tamil Tiger rebels and calling on Lankan intellectuals to unite ‘for a better country.’
Last Friday at its 34th Session currently underway in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) expressed unhappiness with the “slow pace” of transitional justice and the lack of a “comprehensive strategy” to address accountability for past alleged war crimes and called for the establishment of a “hybrid court” comprising Sri Lankan and foreign judges. In its report presented in Geneva, the UNHRC commended the constructive engagement of the current Government of Sri Lanka with the UN’s human rights bodies, marking a strong shift in policy, from the previous regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
However President Maithripala Sirisena, elected with strong backing of the non governmental organizations (NGOs) and voted in by the Sinhala moderates and the Tamil as well as Muslim minorities, lashed out at his former patrons stating that he will ‘not allow NGOs who are maintaining close foreign relations to dictate how he will run his government,’ categorically ruling out the allowing of international judges to investigate alleged war time atrocities.
“I will not listen to their (NGO) calls to prosecute my troops,” President Sirisena, who is also Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces as well as Minister of National Integration and Reconciliation, told the Tri Forces at the Palali Air Force base in Jaffna, the North of the country, last Saturday.
This is his first public reaction since the scathing UNHRC report which observed that ‘party politics’ in Sri Lanka has got in the way of articulating a unified position related to the post war reconciliation process by all sections of the Government.
“Party politics, including the balancing of power between the different constituencies of the coalition in the run-up to constitutional reforms, have contributed to a reluctance to address difficult issues regarding accountability or to clearly articulate a unified position
by all parts of Government,” the UNHRC report said maintaining that ‘unclear and often contradictory messages’ have been delivered on transitional justice mechanisms.
President Maithripala Sirisena, who was elected on 08 January 2015 and enjoyed the initial support of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main Tamil party in Sri Lanka, now faces the exasperation by the TNA at the non implementation of some of the key demands by the Tamil minorities. Eleven TNA parliamentarians have signed a joint appeal to the UN Human Rights Council lobbying the Council to refrain from granting Sri Lanka an extension to implement the 2015 resolution beyond the March 2017 deadline. Among the demands of the TNA is the release of jailed former LTTE cadres, the release of civilian land held by the military, a mechanism of accountability on the dead and missing during the war, and a devolution of power that would bring about a lasting solution to the long drawn concerns of the Tamils which led the country to war in the early 1980s.
Meanwhile, according to reports from Geneva, the first draft of the UN resolution that is likely be adopted at the Human Rights Council at its 34th Session currently underway in Geneva has recommended a two year extension, ending 2019, for Sri Lanka to tackle post-war reconciliation and allegations of war crimes.
The Sri Lankan Government has reportedly confirmed it would co-sponsor the new resolution, which will be led by the US and the UK. The draft resolution is expected to be submitted to the UN Human Rights Council by the co-sponsors by 16 March. The Sri Lanka resolution is expected to be adopted by consensus at the end of the Council’s 34th Session on 23 March.
Back home, however the National Unity government of President Sirisena who shies away from offending the nationalistic sentiments of the Sinhala Buddhist majority by showing any allegiance to the opinions expressed by the UNHRC on war crimes, has to face the competition in nationalistic rhetoric.
Speaking at a convention titled ‘Viyath Maga’ (path of the wise) organized by former Defence Secretary and brother of the former President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and former Minister for Economic Development (also brother of the former President), Basil Rajapaksa and addressing the assembled gathering of academics, professionals and entrepreneurs on Saturday, Rajapaksa had urged officials ‘not to only allow politicians to control the country’s affairs.’
Rajapaksa, at present MP for the Hambantota district, who had earlier in the year declared his new year resolution for 2017 to topple the government together with his Joint Opposition, was reported on Monday by Daily FT in Colombo to have expressed the following sentiments at the Viyath Maga convention: “Over 5,000 soldiers got killed and over 29,000 became disabled. I believe that there are people who are ready to sacrifice their lives for the betterment of future generations. This is why a few of us got together and decided to form this forum for academics, professionals, entrepreneurs and the youth of this country, to formulate a strategy on how can they contribute towards the country’s future.”
His ten year rule of Sri Lanka, ending in January 2015, was marked as one of virtual family rule, with his brothers, sons and other relatives having held key positions in the government but the former president nevertheless enjoys strong support by the Sinhala Buddhist majority of the country, drawing significant crowds to protest rallies and events organized by his Joint Opposition faction in the last two years.