It was always questionable for the Commonwealth to hold its heads of government meeting in Sri Lanka.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa looked forward to the gathering as a precious opportunity to rebuild his government’s tarnished image, which has suffered in the face of criticism for alleged war crimes committed in May 2009, at the end of a decades-long civil conflict, and for growing authoritarianism since. The Rajapaksa government hoped the Commonwealth meeting would showcase its own, happier, picture of a democratic country at peace, committed to reconciliation and moving forward.
Events, however, have not gone according to the government’s script.
On November 8, Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh said he would not be attending, after intense anti-Sri Lanka protests in the south India state of Tamil Nadu. Singh’s announcement followed the Canadian prime minister’s earlier decision to boycott the Commonwealth meeting, citing Sri Lanka’s lack of progress in ensuring accountability for wartime violations and serious ongoing human rights abuses. The prime minister of Mauritius recently followed India’s and Canada’s lead, also citing human rights concerns.
The hundreds of international journalists attending the meeting have also cast a harsh light: the regime’s tactics of political repression have been on display for the world to see. Just days ago, Tamil families whose relatives “disappeared” after surrendering to the army at war’s end were physically prevented from coming to Colombo to protest.
Journalists from Britain’s Channel Four, responsible for some of the strongest reporting on war-crimes allegations, were prevented from travelling to the Tamil-majority north. International human rights lawyers, and even the UN special rapporteur on the independence of the judiciary, had their visas revoked for a meeting on the rule of law with local lawyers. Australian politicians were earlier detained and forced to leave the country after meeting with Sri Lankan rights activists.
These events illustrate some of the central concerns detailed in the new Crisis Group report on “Sri Lanka’s Potemkin Peace: Democracy Under Fire”:
South Africa has an important role in preventing further deterioration in Sri Lanka and nudging the Rajapaksa government in a more democratic and peaceful direction, especially with regard to reconciliation and devolution. South Africa is well-placed to influence Sri Lanka in positive ways, given its quiet initiative to build trust between the government and Tamil leaders and eventually to support a negotiated settlement to ensure a lasting solution to the ethnic conflict. But it must navigate carefully, to ensure the process is inclusive and comprehensive, and importantly is not exploited for narrow political advantage within Sri Lanka.
September’s long-awaited elections to the northern province were won in a landslide by the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance. To move forward, the new council needs Colombo’s co-operation as well as financial, technical and political support from the international community.
The South African government, along with India and other influential international partners of Sri Lanka, should explore how it can best support the council. It should also make it clear to Colombo that diplomatic pressure will intensify if it refuses to allow the northern council to enjoy its full powers or, as threatened earlier this year, pushes through constitutional changes that weaken or eliminate provincial councils.
South Africa should also make the most of its newly won seat on the UN human rights council, which has passed two resolutions calling for accountability and postwar reforms from Sri Lanka. If no credible and independent war crimes inquiry is under way when the council next meets in February, South Africa and other member states should establish an international mechanism to examine the many allegations of violations of international law by both sides in the civil war.
When engaging with Sri Lanka, South Africa should respect the lessons of its own experience: real reconciliation requires open exploration of the past and a commitment to build more inclusive institutions. As long as the Sri Lankan government rejects both approaches, South Africa should use all the tools at its disposal to shift Sri Lanka in a better direction.
* Alan Keenan is the project director for Sri Lanka at the International Crisis Group.
Sri Lanka’s Potemkin Peace: Democracy Under Fire
* The continued centralisation of power and use of intimidation and violence to silence protest from all communities threatens to close the space for peaceful opposition.
* Impunity for Buddhist attacks on mosques and Muslim businesses, and for attacks on Christian churches, has opened ethnic and religious fault lines.
* The absence of credible investigations into alleged war crimes by government forces and the Tamil Tigers in the final months of the war, or into any of the disappearances and political killings since, undermines inter-ethnic reconciliation.
* The stated desire of senior officials to dismantle devolution of powers to the Tamil-majority northern province risks escalating ethnic tensions and eventually sparking a return to violence.
* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.