Does Diplomacy Stand a Chance in Sri Lanka?

by Taylor Dibbert, 'Foreign Policy,' Washington, DC, January 16, 2014

Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009, but the cessation of war has not resulted in the peace that many had hoped for. Notwithstanding some notable progress when it comes to reconstruction and development, authoritarianism, ethnic tension, and majoritarian triumphalism are on the rise.

These trends will come under increased scrutiny at the 25th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, to be held from March 3-28 in Geneva. Discussion and debate will probably highlight a multitude of issues, including Syria’s civil war, unrest elsewhere in the Middle East, and violence in the Central African Republic.

Although less familiar to the general public, the government of Sri Lanka’s stance on accountability and reconciliation will also be widely debated. The Human Rights Council has already passed<> two U.S.-led resolutions on Sri Lanka, and it’s almost certain that Washington will bring a third resolution.
Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights who visited the island in late August, will deliver a report assessing Sri Lanka’s compliance with the most recent Human Rights Council resolution. Given the tenor of Pillay’s Colombo press conference<> and the government’s evident unwillingness to engage with either of the previous Human Rights Council resolutions – which focused on reconciliation, accountability, human rights, and the government’s implementation of the reforms prescribed in its own post-war domestic accountability mechanism, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission – it’s likely that her report will be overwhelmingly negative.

The Human Rights Council cannot pass annual resolutions on Sri Lanka forever, yet the previous two resolutions simply have not produced the desired effects<>. Sri Lanka has failed to implement even the most essential recommendations from the reconciliation commission. A proper examination of the war’s final phases has yet to begin, and the country is rife with problems pertaining to human rights, governance, and the rule of law. The administration in Colombo has shown virtually no interest in crafting a reasonable power-sharing arrangement, something that would help protect the rights of the country’s numerical minorities. Unfortunately, the post-war policies of the Sri Lankan government have deeply alienated<> the Tamil community.
In early December, Nisha Desai Biswal, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, warned<> that the patience of the international community could wear thin if real progress is not seen. Ambassador-at-large Stephen Rapp, head of the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice, visited Sri Lanka from January 6-11. At the conclusion of that visit, the U.S. embassy in Colombo noted that<> Washington’s interest in ensuring all sides have appropriate redress has not waned.
While it’s true that bilateral pressure among a few key countries, including India, the United States and the United Kingdom, may ultimately prove to be more effective, there’s still a small chance that the Human Rights Commission can convince the regime in Colombo to modify its behavior, respect the rule of law, promote human rights, and begin to end the country’s institutionalized culture of impunity.

At this stage, a meaningful resolution on Sri Lanka would include a mandate for an independent international investigation into wartime atrocities<> and perhaps a provision to monitor current developments pertaining to human rights and governance in the country. But passing a resolution of this magnitude will be far more difficult than what’s been done the past two years. Washington understands this, but the Obama administration may have to do a better job of cultivating support in Africa and Asia, aside from reaffirming allies in Europe and Latin America.
Recently, there’s been talk that Sri Lanka will create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission modeled after that in South Africa. This is a worrisome development because the context is so very different. South Africa in the mid-1990s is not Sri Lanka post-war, not even close. Unlike in Sri Lanka, the regime that was responsible for most of the atrocities in South Africa was not in power when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was administered. Furthermore, the administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa has already shown<> that it doesn’t take commissions that are purportedly designed to promote some form of justice – including the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission – seriously. Why would this time be any different? Indeed, it seems more likely a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sri Lanka would only perpetuate impunity<> and forestall fairness and reconciliation.

Now is a thought-provoking time to be watching, as quiet diplomacy goes to work. The contents of a resolution on Sri Lanka will be debated in January and February, and any draft resolution that the United States tables in March would be the product of plenty of negotiation and planning.
Realistically, regardless of the content of any resolution passed at the 25th session of the Human Rights Council, it’s almost certain that other resolutions will not be forthcoming. Unless a tough resolution gets through the council this time, the principal international forum for pressuring Sri Lanka will be largely irrelevant. In the coming years, it’s likely that far more emphasis will be placed on bilateral relations with specific countries of importance. Given the difficulty of reaching consensus in large multilateral venues like the Human Rights Council, bilateral negotiations on issues such as trade, investment, foreign aid, military cooperation or the imposition of economic sanctions have the potential to be far more effective in encouraging the administration in Colombo to change its autocratic ways.

Sri Lanka has made some progress when it comes to reconstruction and development, but authoritarianism, ethnic tension and majoritarian triumphalism still plague the country. And a feckless, fragmented opposition<> ensures that the Rajapaksa regime will be around for some time yet.

For those members of international community concerned about human rights, accountability, and reconciliation on the island, now would be an inauspicious time to look the other way.

Taylor Dibbert is an international consultant based in Washington, D.C., and the author of the book “Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth.” <>

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