A United Nations report released last week on the progress of reconciliation efforts by the Sri Lankan government should be a wake-up call for President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Raising serious concerns about the delay in addressing allegations of war crimes and in meeting other promises Colombo made when it co-sponsored a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in 2015, the report warns the government that the lack of accountability threatens the momentum towards lasting peace. It also alleges that cases of excessive use of force, torture and arbitrary arrests still continue in Sri Lanka, almost eight years after the country’s brutal civil war ended. Mr. Sirisena came to power on a promise that he would restore the rule of law, end the country's international isolation and take steps towards reconciliation with the Tamil ethnic minority. The political momentum was also in favour of the government as it had the support of the dominant sections of the two largest parties in the country. In 2015, when Sri Lanka agreed to a host of measures at the UNHRC, including a judicial process to look into the war crimes, hopes were high.
Undeniably, the government has made some slow progress in addressing the issue of reconciliation. Compared to the previous regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sirisena administration has reached out to Tamils and initiated constitutional and legal reforms. It has also passed enabling legislation to establish an Office of Missing Persons to help find some of the 65,000 people reported missing during the war. But on key issues such as establishing a hybrid judicial mechanism with domestic and foreign judges and returning the military-occupied lands to Tamil civilians in the north and east, there has been no tangible progress. The latest UN report comes at a time when over a hundred displaced Tamil families are protesting at administrative offices in the north and east asking for their lands to be returned. For its part, the government may be wary of taking quick decisions for fear of giving some leeway to Sinhala nationalist factions at a time when Mr. Rajapaksa is trying to revive his political fortunes. But this delay is alienating the government’s allies, eroding the faith of the public, especially war victims, and giving more time to the opposition to regroup itself. And issues such as continuing use of excessive force and arbitrary arrests suggest that the government is either not serious in changing the way the police system works or is incapable of doing so. The Sirisena-Wikremesinghe government should seize the moment and start addressing the core issues, keeping reconciliation and the future of Sri Lanka in mind.