Reviewing Sri Lanka's Progress at the Human Rights Council

In an interesting turn of events, during the HRC's 30th session, the Sri Lankan government co-sponsored a resolution designed to promote accountability and reconciliation in the war-torn country. But how much of the resolution has actually been implemented?
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The Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) will hold its 32nd session from June 13 to July 1. This is an important moment for Sri Lanka's coalition government, which is led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. It's also an opportune time for forthright debate about how much has really changed since two-term authoritarian Mahinda Rajapaksa lost a presidential election in January 2015.

In an interesting turn of events, during the HRC's 30th session, the Sri Lankan government co-sponsored a resolution designed to promote accountability and reconciliation in the war-torn country. But how much of the resolution has actually been implemented? "They [the Sri Lankan government] have intentionally distorted the commitments that they have made under the resolution in their in-country political communication on the subject," says Kumaravadivel Guruparan, a spokesperson for the Tamil Civil Society Forum. "The categorical ruling out of international participation in a judicial mechanism by the president is a repudiation of the key clause of the resolution -- based on which Tamils reluctantly agreed to give a hybrid mechanism a chance."

Indeed, the regrettable reality is that the Sri Lankan government has failed to enthusiastically engage with the latest HRC resolution on Sri Lanka, which was passed on October 1 of last year. "They [the Sri Lankan government] have only been shuffling around with no serious attempt in doing anything worthy," says Colombo-based journalist Kusal Perera. "Even the consultative taskforce for designing a reconciliation process appointed by Foreign Minister [Mangala] Samaraweera lacks credibility and competence, showing the government is not serious."

Colombo is likely to talk up its plans for future implementation during the HRC's next session; domestic and international observers may be told that things are happening behind the scenes and that more concrete accomplishments can be expected in the months ahead. "I think in June [during the HRC session] the government will spend most of its time talking about the political process that they have put in place via the establishment of the Constitutional Assembly," notes Guruparan. He goes on to say that he believes Colombo will privately emphasize "that pushing hard on accountability will derail the political process."

Importantly, during the 32nd session the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) will provide an oral update on the government's implementation of the resolution.

Sri Lanka has recently completed an initial framework for its office to deal with missing persons, one of the four principal pillars of its transitional justice agenda. Outlines for the other pillars have yet to be formulated.

Of the four pillars, an accountability mechanism is an especially sensitive topic -- and one of utmost concern to the Tamil community. Yet, as previously mentioned, Sirisena's stance regarding international participation in such a mechanism (to ensure that the process is credible) is cause for concern. "This government, like the previous Rajapaksa regime, believes the North and East Tamil people can be pacified with livelihood projects," says Perera.

So what's next for Sri Lanka at the HRC?

It's useful to keep in mind that Colombo will be under the microscope of the international community for at least another ten months. OHCHR will release a written report about Sri Lanka's implementation of the abovementioned resolution during the HRC's 34th session in March 2017. By next spring, hopefully Colombo will have moved from promises or outlines to implementation and making politically tough decisions. Continued prevarication is unhelpful.