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A season of hope in Sri Lanka

After years of fratricide, state excesses and abuse of human rights, Sri Lankan civil society organisations are in a festive mood. They are gearing up to build their country’s future with a burst of hope that had eluded them until a few weeks ago.

The turning point came on Jan 8 this year when the groups opposed to the then president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruthless ways put their differences aside and foiled his bid for a third term in the presidency. The event signified, in the words of a leading analyst, an end to Sri Lanka’s drift towards institutionalised authoritarian rule.

In this and in the new resolve that the democratic forces are displaying for securing a functional democracy there are lessons for many Asian countries, including Pakistan.

The new Sri Lankan president has promised a complete overhaul of the state apparatus. Buoyed by a strong public wave in favour of democracy and justice, the new Sri Lankan president has promised a complete overhaul of the state apparatus within 100 days. The agenda includes constitutional reform, the creation of an independent multi-member election commission, streamlining of the services, and rehabilitating the large number of people who suffered heavily during the decades of strife.

A measure of the new government’s will to pursue the reform agenda has been offered by the sequence of swift changes in the judiciary. The chief justice who had compromised his independence by showing himself up as Rajapaksa’s accomplice, was removed and his predecessor, who had been victimised by the regime, was restored, but the latter chose to make way for a widely respected judge after only one day in office.

A good feature of the debate on the reform agenda is that in the euphoria created by the popular electoral victory realism has not been abandoned. Quite a few groups are wondering whether 100 days will be sufficient for carrying out consensus-based measures that the public could own and defend.

Another cause for anxiety is the fact that the issue that led to the horrible strife, namely, the denial of political space to the large ethnic minorities, was not raised during the election campaign, so as to avoid any division in the anti-Rajapaksa alliance. The issue does not figure prominently in the current debate either. However, Sri Lankan stability will depend on a democratic resolution of the ethnic question. The Tamil and Muslim communities voted overwhelmingly against Rajapaksa and they should be looking for an early settlement of their grievances.

Quite high on the civil society organisations’ agenda is their demand for accountability of all those who committed excesses during the conflict and justice for their victims. Several of these organisations conducted a courageous campaign at home and abroad to pressurise the outgoing government to investigate wanton killings, disappearances, uprooting of communities from their traditional abodes and pay appropriate compensation to the affected families. Several of the leaders of this campaign lobbied with the United Nations agencies and regional organisations for justice for the victims of state forces’ crimes and had to stay in exile for long periods.

The entire civil society is now waiting for the release of a report of the inquiry by a special UN committee created under a Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution of March 2014. Acting on the recommendation of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Council requested the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) to undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka and to establish facts and circumstances of such alleged violations and of the crimes perpetrated with a view to avoiding impunity and ensuring accountability. The report of this inquiry is to be presented at the coming session of the HRC.

The Rajapaksa regime doggedly opposed the probe move, denied the investigation team permission to conduct any inquiry or even to enter Sri Lanka and punished the victims, witnesses and human rights defenders who offered any assistance to the mission.

Fortunately, the Sri Lankan civil society has been able to win broad-based support at the regional level. A meeting of human rights organisations from 17 Asian countries held recently in Bangkok by two strong regional coalitions, the Asia Democracy Network and Forum-Asia, undertook to sustain the campaign for accountability and justice in Sri Lanka at all available forums. This meeting furnished more proof of the growing ability of the Asian human rights organisations to act in concert to promote their human rights agenda. This movement can only be welcomed as it should ultimately compel the Asian states to adopt appropriate regional mechanisms for the defence of the rights of the huge Asian population.

That most of the Asian states are still not prepared to dismantle the regime of impunity that enables them to deprive their peoples of their basic rights was again proved during the HRC debate on Sri Lanka in March last year. The resolution to authorise an investigation was adopted by 23 votes to 12 with 12 abstentions. Out of the 13 Asian members of the council, only South Korea voted in favour of the resolution while six (India, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait and the Philippines) abstained, and Pakistan joined China, the Maldives, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Vietnam in voting against the proposal.

Pakistan criticised the OHCHR report on Sri Lanka as being “not balanced” and objected to an international inquiry mechanism. Further, Pakistan defended the Rajapaksa regime by citing Sri Lanka’s “excellent democratic credentials” and protested against penalising the Sri Lankan people “for defeating the LTTE, at the behest of people who still continue to align themselves with these terrorist forces”.

It is time for Pakistan’s civil society to ask the foreign ministry to make its work at international fora fully transparent. Ways must be found to ensure that Pakistan’s representatives discontinue their habit of aligning themselves with the conservative camp known for its contempt for democracy and human rights.

I. A. Rehman, "A season of hope in Sri Lanka," Dawn. 2015-02-12.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social aspects , Human rights , Judicial reforms , Civil society , Society-Sri Lanka , Democracy , Violence , Mahinda Rajapaksa , Pakistan , China , Japan , Sri Lanka , HRC