The frequent human rights updates in Geneva provide an occasion for the world to discuss Sri Lanka’s post-war situation, especially the progress made in investigating the excesses during the last phase of the civil war that ended in 2009. Until last year, the country considered the process hostile and inimical to its interests. Now, with a new government in Colombo, there has been constructive engagement with the international community and Sri Lanka says it is looking for ways to implement a unanimous resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in October 2015. The UNHRC has tried to >nudge Sri Lanka towards rebuilding civilian lives through resettlement, reducing the military presence in the north and east, and delivering accountability for past crimes through a credible judicial process with international participation. However, the update presented by High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein in Geneva does not present an encouraging picture. He expressed concern about the “heavy military presence” in Tamil areas, noting that the process of the military returning land to its civilian owners has been tardy. There is a lack of urgency in coming up with tangible measures to build confidence among minorities and victims of human rights violations. In turn, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has informed the ongoing session in Geneva that the government has instructed the military to release by 2018 all civilian land it holds. He has promised that the proposed judicial mechanism will inspire confidence among the stakeholders, but has drawn attention to the “divergent views” in the country on it, perhaps a hint of further delay.
Sri Lanka went through a democratic transition in 2015 when it elected Maithripala Sirisena as President, ending the 10-year reign of Mahinda Rajapaksa, which was marked by post-war triumphalism and a disregard for the plight of ethnic minorities. Later, the parliamentary election led to a national unity government that promised good governance, economic revival, and transitional justice for the war-affected. But even today the High Commissioner has reason to be anxious that those promises are at risk. The road was not expected to be smooth for Sri Lanka when it embarked on an ambitious effort towards national reconciliation and accountability. But the government is frittering away energy and time on political controversies, the row over the appointment of a new Central bank governor being an example. Having set in motion the process for a new Constitution and measures for reconciliation and reform, any loss of momentum now on the part of the government will result in a loss of credibility.