Colombo Despatch International

The clock is ticking on reconciliation

Making his opening remarks at the 36th session of the UN Human Rights Council last week, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein asked the Sri Lankan government to establish a clear timeline for the implementation of its commitments regarding post-war reconciliation in the country.

“This should not be viewed by the government as a box-ticking exercise to placate the Council, but as an essential undertaking to address the rights of all its people,” he said, speaking of the apprehension that many Sri Lankans have about the government’s slow-paced efforts in addressing war-affected Tamils’ concerns.

The said “box-ticking” approach is perhaps why the cheer was barely audible when President Maithripala Sirisena signed a gazette notification this week, in his capacity as Minister of National Integration and Reconciliation, to operationalise the long-awaited Office of the Missing Persons (OMP).

While the process of operationalising the OMP has begun after much delay, relatives of the disappeared have been protesting relentlessly for months now, raising some pressing questions. They have not heard back from the government since Mr. Sirisena told their representatives in June that a list of those who surrendered to the Army would soon be released. At a recent press conference in Colombo, the Association for Relatives for Enforced Disappeared in Kilinochchi district issued a statement that said: “We vehemently refuse to be deceived again.”

Further, a Colombo-based NGO, the Centre for Policy Alternatives, has raised questions about the legality of the process of making the OMP operational, citing a clause in the Constitution that limits the President’s power to assign himself any Ministry.

However, those in government are quick to point to domestic political challenges — particularly the pressure that Mr. Sirisena faces from within his own party. A faction of it remains loyal to former President and his political rival Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is hugely popular among sections of rural Sinhalese as well as the armed forces.

Sources close to Mr. Sirisena’s office insist that his recent remarks, staunchly defending a former Army chief facing war-crimes allegations, must be seen in that light. “I will never allow anyone, including international elements, to harass former Army commander Lt. Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya or any other war hero,” he assured his party cadre earlier this month.

Pressure from within

Given that Mr. Rajapaksa has vowed to topple the government, Mr. Sirisena’s camp feels that for every step he takes forward towards reconciliation, he is pulled two steps backward in his own constituency.

However, Mr. Sirisena — who was strongly backed by the minorities in the 2015 polls — knows well that his constituency is larger than his party and that the mandate he got requires him to serve more than just those belonging to the Sinalese majority.

On more than one occasion, he has said that he has “not just a responsibility, but also an obligation” to address the concerns of the Tamils affected during the civil war. “They have confidence in me that I will solve their problems,” he had told The Hindu in an interview in 2016.

In March this year, the UN Human Rights Council granted Mr. Sirisena’s government a two-year extension to fulfil its commitments, but it remains to be seen how long the Geneva calendar might work for the government. Amid growing pressure from domestic political challenges, the clock might just be ticking faster.

Meera Srinivasan works for The Hindu and is based in Colombo

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 5:38:33 PM |

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