Sri Lanka's Defining Moment?

Sri Lanka's parliamentary elections concluded yesterday could define its future. If President Rajapaksa's party wins two-thirds majority as expected, he can make far-reaching constitutional amendments. Sri Lanka's future depends upon his ability to use these powers to repair relations with the Tamils.

The island is at a crossroads. Having completed a disputed presidential election and returned Mahinda Rajapaksa -- the much maligned incumbent -- to power, it must now undertake the difficult task of reconciling with the alienated Tamil population. The Tamils largely abstained from the election and are mute bystanders. While the army's take-no-prisoners approach has annihilated the LTTE, it has been universally condemned for gross human rights abuses against innocent Tamils.

The 2.5 million strong Tamil population cannot be wished away. Unless the Sinhalese find a way to bring them back into the mainstream quickly, chances are that another cycle of separatist violence is only a few years away. The children of those killed will want justice. If legal accountability is not forthcoming, they will turn to guns and condemn another generation to terrorism.

Thousands of Tamils continue to languish in temporary camps - homeless in a country where they once thrived. They are the real victims of the LTTE's 26 year war with the state - supposedly fought on their behalf. Camp conditions are horrific both in physical and human rights terms: many allegedly are being held incommunicado for suspected links with the LTTE. They must be resettled as a first step.

There are allegations that the media has been intimidated through killings, torture, disappearances and detentions. Accurate reporting is the casualty. Rajapaksa must realize that this is against his own self-interest and lift restrictions on the media. If the government truly has nothing to hide it can only benefit from sunshine.

Sri Lanka cannot go forward without erasing the taint of illegal killings and disappearances. The government's vociferous denials of wrongdoing have been dented by video and other evidence of troops executing bound captives; a UN expert confirmed that a mobile phone video showing one such killing was genuine after three forensic experts viewed the footage. There is evidence that some of these gross abuses were authorised at the very top: General Fonseka who was Rajapaksa's rival in the presidential elections claimed that execution orders had been issued by the defence secretary, who is the president's brother.

A US State Department report in 2009 documented that government forces shelled civilian areas and caused deaths before the expiry of a publicly announced ceasefire. Captives and combatants who sought to surrender were also allegedly slaughtered. The report also documents cases of disappearances and killings in custody. Similar reports have been issued by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The international community has repeatedly called upon Rajapaksa to remedy human rights violations. After its pleas were ignored, the European Union even suspended the Generalised System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) for Sri Lanka. These concessions are extremely important: goods from countries accorded GSP+ are offered reduced tariffs when entering the EU market. Sri Lanka's suspension is temporary - it has six months to comply with human rights standards - and the special treatment could be revived upon meeting benchmarks.

The suspension was based on a European Commission investigation concluding that Sri Lanka is in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights - a largely toothless UN instrument, - the Convention against Torture, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

For once, the EU's actions carry some punch: imports from Sri Lanka under GSP+ amounted to Eur. 1.24 billion in 2008, and the Lankans depend heavily on the EU because it is their largest export market. This is not the only tool in the EU's box: it could suspend Sri Lanka from GSP treatment altogether despite there being no human rights requirements under that scheme.

Sri Lanka must ratify these and other related human rights treaties. This alone won't be enough: it must implement these treaties though domestic law and train the army and police to act within the confines of human rights guarantees. Creating a culture of respect for human rights will not only burnish the country's reputation but will also allow it to attract the foreign investment it desperately needs. Sri Lanka's economy is predicted to grow at over 6% and it can ill afford economic sanctions for poor human rights practices.

Repairing relations with the Tamils also depends on legal accountability for past wrongs. One option would be an international truth and reconciliation commission under the mandate of the European Union. Tamils are unlikely to trust a TRC comprised of domestic actors because Sri Lanka has a poor record when inquiry commissions into human rights abuses have previously been set up. Two domestic commissions - the first from 1994-97, and the second from 2001-02 are widely accepted to be failures.

The international TRC (ITRC) could be part of a legalized agreement between the Sinhalese government, the EU, and the Tamil community. Such a contract is essential to the success of the process because it will specify precise commitments, and facilitate the monitoring of those commitments by external observers. Since this legal agreement would have to be debated in parliament, the positions of the various parties would be transparent. Once adopted, the parties would have bought into the process giving it a high chance of success. This will minimize adversarial finger pointing and resultant reactionary denials.

The ITRC must have the mandate to investigate the killings of over 7000 civilians in the last throes of the conflict. Establishing the truth must be the first step in ensuring accountability. Coevally, draconian legislation giving the government emergency powers must be repealed and basic human rights protections must be guaranteed to ensure that people can testify without fear.

Illegally held Tamils must be produced before magistrates and charged with crimes or released. They must be given access to legal counsel.

Open public hearings by the ITRC will facilitate an accounting of the price paid by all Lankans. In appropriate cases, amnesties or plea bargains for lower sentences could incentivize Sri Lankan Army personnel to accept responsibility for their actions, leading to healing and forgiveness.

Rajapaksa must also use his mandate to increase democratic participation for the Tamils. Whatever the solution - the creation of a separate chamber in parliament or a separate state - the Tamils must be a part of the process if it is to succeed.

The Tamils must also come half way if Rajapaksa does his part. They cannot languish under the burden of past misgivings permanently. Full participation in the political process is the first step in integrating the community with the majority.

Sri Lanka must not miss this historic opportunity to establish a lasting peace after winning a just war against the LTTE.