This week, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is visiting Australia. Besides growing economic cooperation, apparently ‘enhanced cooperation on development and sport’ between the two nations is on the agenda. But let’s hope that beyond friendly cricket matches, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull asks some hard questions about how the Sri Lankan government will provide accountability to victims and their families, still awaiting justice seven years after the horrific end to the country’s long civil war.
Last year, the Sri Lankan government agreed to a 2015 United Nations Human Rights Council resolution that mandates the creation various transitional justice mechanisms, including a way to provide accountability for war crimes that envisions international involvement. This was a positive change in approach, and next month the the Sri Lankan government is due to report on what progress it has made.
Certainly there have been a number of positive developments in Sri Lanka. Civil society groups are once again able to speak out safely on issues of concern. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and several UN experts have visited over the last 18 months. The government passed legislation to create an Office of Missing Persons and signed the International Convention against Enforced Disappearance; two steps toward tackling a massive decades-long problem. It has reportedly also started drafting legislation for truth-seeking and reconciliation, as well as for reparations and to prevent a recurrence of the widespread human rights abuses carried out by the army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The government asserts that these bills are being revised to reflect national public consultations.
Yet, while progress has been made in many areas, key commitments have not been met. The draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act remains in force, and there have been several arrests under this law in the past year. Moreover, many people imprisoned under this law were charged after allegedly being tortured to confess. The government has still not put forward a plan to provide redress for those unjustly detained under the that law.
Large tracts of land remain under military control, primarily in the predominantly ethnic Tamil north and east. Delays plague the creation of the Office of Missing Persons. Above all, there has been no tangible progress in setting up courts with international involvement to bring to trial those responsible for serious wartime violations. A government appointed task force reported in January that communities favour international participation in a justice process. Despite its inclusion in the Human Rights Council resolution, President Maithripala Sirisena has increasingly spoken out against foreign judges and other international involvement.
Australia has a mixed record on Human Rights Council resolutions promoting human rights in Sri Lanka. It seems that Australia sided with the previous Rajapaksa government in opposition to earlier resolutions largely because of border security. According to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, the Australian government’s silence on rights abuses was the price it paid to secure cooperation from the Rajapaksa government on stopping asylum-seeker boats. However, with the election of a new government in Sri Lanka, Australia changed its tune and was among the co-sponsors of the crucial 2015 resolution.
With Australia vying for a seat at the UN Human Rights Council in 2018-2020, the international community will be taking particular interest in whether it supports human rights in the Asia-Pacific region. Turnbull should urge Wickremesinghe to ensure that victims – who have given testimony to several official commissions, braved surveillance and threats, and waited for information about missing loved ones – get the answers they have long been seeking, and that it happens as soon as possible.
Foreign judges and prosecutors can play a significant role in ensuring independence and impartiality in accountability mechanisms for wartime abuses. Turnbull would do well to offer Sri Lanka help in this regard and, given Australia’s long friendly relations and Commonwealth status, Wickremesinghe might just accept it.