Many in Sri Lanka had hoped that the arrival of world leaders for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo recently would have signalled the triumphant re-emergence of Sri Lanka on the world stage, having cast off doubts about war crimes committed at the end of its 25-year-long civil war and concerns about the increasingly authoritarian nature of its government.
Instead, the summit ended up being a political disaster for the Sri Lankan administration. Prominent leaders—of Canada, India and Mauritius—boycotted the event, only half of the Commonwealth’s 53 member states sent an actual head of government (the others were represented at a more junior level) and those leaders who did turn up insisted on asking questions publicly about accountability for war crimes allegedly committed at the end of the civil war.
What CHOGM did was lay bare the two fundamental challenges that face Sri Lanka: healing the wounds of the war and building a fully-functioning democracy underpinned by human rights and the rule of law. Unfortunately, neither Sri Lanka’s current political leadership nor the current state of the polity suggests that these challenges are going to be successfully addressed any time soon.
As Sri Lanka prepares for a census to count the human and economic costs of the war and a possible South Africa-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), many have hoped that the legacy of decades of ethno-political conflict can finally be left behind. Despite numerous calls from within and outside the island, however, the government has refused to initiate a full and independent inquiry into what went on during the war and especially during its tumultuous end in 2009.
The problem, as pointed out by the leader of the Tamil party in the Sri Lankan Parliament, is that ‘genuine reconciliation is not possible unless there is credible accountability’. And, while a TRC may seem an appealing move towards transitional justice, there are critical differences between post-apartheid South Africa and contemporary Sri Lanka. As one analyst has argued, ’any attempt to mimic a SA TRC process unless accompanied by a genuine and concrete change of behaviour and strategy on the part of government—including a demonstrable willingness to investigate and prosecute crimes, as well as securing a full and final political deal on restructuring the nature of the state through power sharing—will not succeed’. Indeed, to substitute window-dressing for genuine reconciliation would risk doing more harm than good and might rekindle the very grievances that started the war.
Shrinking democratic space
Sri Lanka’s second challenge, often overshadowed by discussions of the war and its aftermath, is the shrinking democratic space on the island. The right to express dissent remains seriously imperilled. Being a critic of the government can lead to serious consequences, as evidenced by the list of recent attacks on civil society documented in a report published last month by CIVICUS and the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).
The wave of abductions of civil-society activists, journalists and dissidents remains a constant threat to citizen participation in post-war Sri Lanka, especially in a context where little or no progress has been made in to the investigation of these incidents. Worse still, senior government officials have run smear campaigns against those who dare criticise them, labelling activists as ‘treacherous’ or ‘unpatriotic’. As a result of government-led aggression, Sri Lanka today is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists.
The report also highlights the restrictive legal environment for non-governmental organisations, administrative and regulatory obstacles impeding their effectiveness. Most worrying of all is that the arm of the body which oversees NGO operation, the NGO Secretariat, is under the control of the Ministry of Defence. It is hard not to conclude, as did Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, at the end of a recent visit to the island, that Sri Lanka ‘is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction‘.
Ultimately, of course, the two challenges are inextricably linked. A vibrant democratic space with a healthy civil society is essential for holding government to account, airing grievances (particularly those of minorities who feel persecuted), promoting an honest dialogue and rebuilding trust. And a lasting political settlement on ethnic issues would not be possible without opening up democratic space.
Meanwhile, those outside Sri Lanka have few levers to influence the agenda in Sri Lanka. The CHOGM, for example, was an important opportunity to push for accountability and democratisation but it seems to have made little difference and indeed may have made the president and his supporters even more recalcitrant. The worry is that, if things were this bad in the lead-up to and during the summit itself, the future without the international spotlight looks worse.
Most international donors and agencies are either out of Sri Lanka or working only on humanitarian issues. At the geopolitical level, Sri Lanka has found generous economic support and considerable political cover from the likes of China, making it less concerned about what the ‘west’ thinks. Moreover, the more noise that the so-called international community makes, the more the Sri Lankan regime can whip up garrison nationalism against alleged neo-imperialists trying to undermine its sovereignty or fragment the island or both.
It seems that Sri Lanka suffered for decades because the politics of ethnicity trumped all else. During the civil war, the complaint was that the international community did not do enough to intervene. Today, the politics of autocracy is in the ascendency, curtailing civic space and undermining efforts at ethnic reconciliation. And while the international community is now engaged, it still seems unable to make a difference.