by Richard Armitage & Karen Bue, ‘South China Morning Post,’ Hong Kong, October 9, 2015
The horrors of the conflict in Sri Lanka were laid bare in a report issued last month by the UN Human Rights Council. Unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, sexual violence and the use of child soldiers were among the parade of horribles perpetrated against Sri Lankans during the last years of fighting between government forces and Tamil rebels. This sad history, involving atrocities by both sides, has given rise to renewed calls for accountability. Seeking justice will be a necessary part of the healing process but we must not lose focus on the future, the success of which will depend largely on a political solution that guarantees the rights of all Sri Lankans.
Until the ouster of president Mahinda Rajapaksa in January, Sri Lanka’s track record on justice and accountability had been atrocious at best. Under his leadership, these concepts were largely ignored after what many considered to be a triumphant end to the conflict in 2009. Thus, it was not surprising to see the Human Rights Council report’s far-reaching recommendations for transitional justice, to include a hybrid tribunal, of which the international community would be a part.
The difference today, however, is that progress on reconciliation has been made by the new government, led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Since January, they have strengthened civilian administration in the former conflict-affected provinces, issued a declaration of peace, acknowledged the loss of life and victims of violence of all ethnicities and religions, and taken steps to strengthen good governance.
This encouraged a US-led effort to produce a consensus resolution on reconciliation and accountability that Sri Lanka itself agreed to co-sponsor. It addresses the prosecution of allegations of serious human rights violations and potential war crimes under a “Sri Lankan judicial mechanism” that will include local, foreign and Commonwealth judges and lawyers. While the draft resolution is being hailed by some as a win-win for Sri Lanka and the global community, the implementation of its intent will be a long and possibly contentious slog.
Bottom line, justice and accountability in Sri Lanka, although absolutely necessary, will be challenging and require the concerted attention of everyone involved. With this sure understanding, parties must not let the focus on accountability overshadow another, perhaps more crucial, element of lasting peace – a political solution.
Sri Lanka’s recent elections were a mandate for change. The occasion of a new, more consensual government in Colombo is an opportunity to finally address Tamil grievances in a manner that strengthens Sri Lankan democracy as a whole. A process of constitutional reform that is robust, fair-minded and responsive to the needs of all should be supported, encouraged and realised with equal zeal.
We must not let the search for justice distract a nation from a political solution that, in the end, may do more to secure a lasting peace than anything else.
Richard Armitage was US deputy secretary of state from 2001 to 2005. Kara Bue was deputy assistant secretary of state for political military affairs, 2003-05