The past months have seen Tamil victims of Sri Lanka’s decades-long conflict meet with ambassadors from across the world. The recent visit to the North-East by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Al Hussein held particular significance. It symbolised the continued international focus on the future of the North-East and renewed hopes that justice and reform is beginning to take shape, to those who continue to suffer from the consequences of repression and military occupation.
Mr Hussein’s visit came as victims in the North-East saw both the Sri Lankan president and prime minister backtrack on pledges to deliver on accountability, made to them and the international community. Mr Sirisena in particular has been explicit in his rejection of international judges, a reversal of position on a key element of the UN resolution that Sri Lanka co-sponsored. This is despite it being firmly acknowledged that to address the systematic crimes described in the OISL report, a specialised level of expertise that is not typically available in Sri Lanka is required. Indeed, as the High Commissioner noted, given Sri Lanka’s history is “littered with judicial failures”, international participation is vital to ensure impartial proceedings, and has been resolutely advocated for by the victims themselves. Instead, Colombo appears to move towards obscuring justice, rather than delivering it.
As calls for justice become more intense, a rising climate of Sinhala nationalism has been fermenting; exemplified by the veracity of protests against the human rights chief and the insidious ‘Sinha Le’ campaign. Against this backdrop, Mr Sirisena’s remarks are unwise - but not unexpected. Whilst raising the spectre of the Rajapaksa regime’s resurgence, his actions reinforce the toxic Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism on which Rajapaksa thrives, rather than challenging it. He has chosen to indulge nationalist sentiment and thus fuel its revival, instead of focusing on regaining the trust of the Tamils and building the reconciled, liberal, inclusive, multi-ethnic state that his government promised.
Mr Wickremesinghe too has been guilty of pandering to nationalist rhetoric, reassuring parliamentarians that any foreign judges would have to seek Supreme Court approval. Attempts to balance this with nods towards allowing international participation, inspires little confidence amongst many Tamils who have been repeatedly failed by duplicit Sinhala leaders and a flawed justice system. Mr Wickremesinghe’s toing and froing is disingenuous and indicates a policy of obfuscation. The international community must be clear that the prime minister can no longer carry on this balancing act. If the island is to move towards a lasting peace for all, his claimed commitment to liberal peace must be put into practise, and he must heed the victims demands.
Alongside this, his declaration that the tens of thousands of missing people across the North-East were “probably dead” caused deep distress to those who continue their desperate search in the hope that their loved ones return. It provided no further information on the missing or comfort to their relatives, and was delivered in a manner that runs contrary to the spirit of reconciliation his government claims to extend. If the missing are dead, then as the High Commissioner noted, the prime minister must take responsibility to properly account for their deaths and provide redress.
The High Commissioner also highlighted two key measures that must be swiftly taken. The removal of the military presence in the North-East, would be a step in the direction towards security sector reform and give civic life in the region much needed breathing space. This goes hand in hand with the release of military occupied land, a move that the High Commissioner noted will ensure a “lingering sore will have been cured once and for all". However, as Sri Lankan army bases become evermore permanent, Colombo has chosen to let these sores fester and deepen.
Having been pivotal in bringing this government into power last year, the Tamil people were asked to keep their faith in the promise of reform. Despite having repeatedly outlined avenues for action, through the forming of new political bodies, the passing of resolutions and proposals and constant demonstrations, pledges of long-lasting change remain unfilled. Sri Lanka though, seemingly emboldened by a perceived alleviation in international pressure, wavers on its commitments to the victims. The parliamentary appointment of General Sarath Fonseka, the commander who oversaw the massacres of 2009, was yet another chagrin to the victims and their hopes of justice.
In the coming weeks, as the state begins a consultation process to outline an accountability mechanism, the international community must ensure that no such faltering occurs. International pressure, which has relentlessly driven reform on the island so far, must persist if a justice process where the victims voices take centre place is to be forged. Indeed that was the defining message left by ambassadors who visited the North-East - including the High Commissioner. Mr Hussein’s words in Jaffna encapsulated the victims hopes and brought to the fore the expectations of justice that belie the international community. Having assured them that change will come, the international community cannot fail them again. After years of waiting, justice that is long overdue must finally be served.
Illustration by Keera Ratnam