Geneva Circus is Back in Town
By Dr. Harini Amarasuriya
Since the end of the war in 2009, every year, come January, February, the Sri Lankan Government starts scrambling to respond to the Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva. Once the sessions are over, other priorities take over. This has been the cycle for the past 12 years. Yet, problems on the ground remain largely unsolved. As I write this, the Foreign Minister has made his statement in response to the High Commissioner’s report and member States are expressing their stance on Sri Lanka. We will soon know whether there will be a resolution on Sri Lanka and what that might be.
For a country that has been through so much violence and bloodshed, Sri Lanka has remained singularly incapable of coming to terms with its past, especially to acknowledge the suffering and loss of the victims of violence. We excel at appointing Commissions to investigate incidents, documenting and analysing violence in our country and even in coming up with recommendations to prevent recurrence. Yet, our record on implementing these recommendations has been far less laudable. Commissions have become a tool to be used to buy time, deflect and distract from addressing difficult problems. Our response to Human Rights Council recommendations fall right within this pattern. These processes, both national and international, have simply become political platforms on which various actors grandstand – while the fundamental problems remain unresolved. The cycle has become entirely predictable: international actors threaten action against the Government which responds with a mixture of bluster and pleading followed by the passing of resolutions which both parties claim as ‘victories’ ‘steps in the right direction’ ‘hopeful’ etc. and when the dust settles, we go back to the status quo.
While there is no doubt that international mechanisms for ensuring human rights are in need of serious reform, my focus in this article is on the failure of successive Sri Lankan Governments to set up credible processes to investigate human rights violations – especially when the State is implicated. We constantly hear stories about how we should forget about what happened and that we should all simply move on. Yet, what is the cost of moving on without healing and coming to terms with our past? The suffering and trauma of victims of State violence have often provided the rhetoric and propaganda on which political platforms have been formed and elections have been won. But, post-Independence political history in Sri Lanka is littered with incidents of human rights violations where perpetrators have rarely been held accountable and victims and their families have failed to secure justice. Even on rare instances when charges have been filed and cases completed, for example most recently the case of former Army Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake, who was found guilty of killing eight civilians, three of whom were children, a presidential pardon made a mockery of the entire proceedings.
Change of regime in 2015 provided an opportunity for the new Government at the time to intervene meaningfully in restoring people’s trust in systems of accountability. While there were some gains, by and large, the apparatus that could turn the State repressive at a moment’s notice remained in place. Little to no attention was paid to the institutional reforms that were necessary to ensure non-recurrence of human rights violations. Offices such as the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and Reparations established as a part of the institutional reforms remain paralysed. With perhaps the exception of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, which used the independence it obtained through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, in the best possible way, local mechanisms to hold the State to account remained weak. Even the attempt of the previous Government to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, was to replace it with the Counter Terrorism Act, which actually broadened the reach of the State for surveillance and repression. The limited progress made during the previous regime was squandered by the lack of institutionalisation of even those limited measures. The failure to bring about any serious reform meant that a change of Government with a more blatantly securitised and militarised approach not only reversed even the minor gains reached after 2015, but led quite easily and quickly to a re-activation of the repressive and authoritarian nature of the State.
Unless we take meaningful steps to address these fundamental issues – at the very least, ensuring rule of law and independence of the judiciary, we will find ourselves stuck in the same cycle of violence followed by impunity. Protecting human rights offenders and perpetrators within the State structure leaves little space for accountability. More worryingly, each of these cycles, damage and weaken the institutions that are meant to protect citizens – such as the judiciary and law enforcement – making transformation harder and harder. Narratives to justify human rights violations – starting with the stigmatisation of those who can be dealt with outside the normal law – whether drug addicts, terrorists, sexual offenders, or those who are unpatriotic – become easier to normalise within society. Our attention to human rights should not only be about our international obligations – but building a more just and humane society in and of its own sake.