Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for February, 2020

Navigating Geneva with national, not political, interests

Posted by harimpeiris on February 26, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 25th February 2020)

The bi-annual sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, is due to begin this week and will run through the month of March. Leading Sri Lanka’s delegation to the high-level segment would be Minister of Foreign Affairs, (Dinesh Gunawardena, and according to press reports, accompanied by Minsters Mahinda Samarasinghe and Nimal Siripala de Silva. Reportedly the Government is seeking to pull out of UN Resolution 30/1 and the underlying factors, relevant to this important issue deserve to be examined carefully. International belligerence for the purpose of domestic political advantage in the forthcoming general elections, is unwise.

An internationalized postwar reconciliation

The first ground reality that Sri Lanka faces is that our export driven, tourism and remittance dependent economy is firmly plugged to the global economy and very popularly so. Our garment exports, tourism and remittances are the lifeline to a vast swath of our working and lower middle classes. Similarly, our ethnic conflict is also internationalized. Not least through a Tamil Diaspora, scattered throughout the western world, following the July 1983 pogroms and now influential in those societies. Sri Lanka’s war effort and especially ending the war was unstintingly assisted by the international community, especially through the sale of armaments to Sri Lanka’s military, which has no domestic weapons industry. We fought the war using Israeli Kfir jets, Czechoslovak multi-barrel rocket launches and various weapon systems from all over the world. Instrumental in ending the war following the failure of the Norwegian facilitated cease fire agreement in 2006, was the banning of the LTTE and their fundraising and financing in most of the Western world such as UK, EU and Canada, including India.

Instrumental in the final phases of the war was the sinking of the LTTE ships in mid sea through intelligence information sharing and other assistance by India, including our deep-water naval capacity. So, Sri Lanka ended the war with international support and assistance. In 2009, the Administration of then President (& now Prime Minister) Mahinda Rajapaksa, invited the UN Secretary General as the first foreign visitor to visit the North following the end of the war, and made commitments through a joint statement of May 2009. This was followed by his administration co-sponsoring its own resolution at the UNHRC later that month, and adopted as Resolution A/HRC/S-11/2 (11/2 for short) of 27th May 2009, by a vote of 29 for and 12 against with 6 abstentions. So, both the international nature of the issues concerned and dealing with the same internationally is not new.

Moving from war to peace

A serious conversation on moving from a protracted civil conflict spanning almost three decades to a sustainable post-war peace, is rather obviously a more complex exercise than simply ending the fighting. Both the effects and the causes of the conflict need to be addressed. There is international experience with a sound theoretical basis and very valid reasons as to why brutally fought wars are followed by sustained efforts to secure peace. For example, the Second World War in Europe was followed by the Marshall Plan on rebuilding Germany mostly, while the war in Asia was followed by massive American assistance to Japan, post-war. The intent is always to turn the vanquished into an ally, an adversary into a partner and a foe into a friend. This in the context of Sri Lanka, though promised in 2009, was not really done by the then Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration, notwithstanding the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), the Maxwell Paranagama Commission and the Tissa Vitharana All Parties Representatives Committee (APRC) processes all initiatives and processes under that Administration, but not implemented. The world was taking note that we seemed intent on pursuing the peace, in the manner of fighting a war, rather than making the essential pivotal changes from polarization to inclusivity, from intolerance of dissent to tolerance, from emergency law to constitutional governance, from limiting human rights to robust democratic freedoms, from draconian anti-terror regulations to internationally accepted norms in counter terrorism legislation.

The UN and US have within just the first 100 days of the new Administration shown some indication of where things may be headed. Sri Lanka’s military contribution to UN international peacekeeping operations, extremely popular in our military, due to the hefty UN allowances paid to both troops and the Army was curtailed. Army commander Gen. Shavendra Silva was listed for human rights violations and together with his family, banned from travelling or visiting the United States.

A clear domestic process

UNHRC resolution 30/1, following on from similar such prior resolutions of the UNHRC, adopted unanimously by the Council and co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, was an attempt to ensure that the international partnership so successful in ending the war was also continued in securing the peace. Resolution 30/1 makes clear that the reconciliation process is a domestic Sri Lankan one, with such international expertise, technical assistance and practical partnership in the processes, as may be required. The entire debate on securing Cabinet approval for co-sponsoring a resolution is an irrelevant diversion. Resolution 11/2 of 2009 did not have Cabinet approval either. They are political decisions rather than executive ones. The Governments of the day supported it. President Sirisena’s own lack of support is more likely driven by his political transformation over the period of his term, from being an anti-Rajapaksa challenger in 2015, to being an avid supporter of an SLPP two-third majority in 2020.

Former Foreign (& then Finance) Minister Mangala Samaraweera summed it up best when he tweeted over the weekend “Sri Lanka’s great leap backwards: within the first 100 days of the GR regime the economy is in shambles, reconciliation in tatters and now with the withdrawal of the Geneva 30/1 we face international isolation and pariah status”.

(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016-2017)

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The challenges ahead in Independence

Posted by harimpeiris on February 6, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 06th February 2020)

Sri Lanka’s 72nd Independence Day celebrations are now over. The ceremony was held with the pomp and pageantry traditionally associated with the occasion and it provided an opportunity for the nation to both look back at its recent history, learn its lessons, as well as to look ahead to the challenges and the shared future which lies ahead of us as a nation.

Sri Lanka’s independence itself, is a clear occasion for celebration. To celebrate what was achieved seventy-two long years ago. Where a united national political leadership, successfully negotiated the transition from a British crown colony to a representative democracy. Sri Lanka’s independence heroes, were a diverse group, including those from the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher communities. Sri Lanka’s democratic achievements have been significant. Becoming one of the first countries in the world to have universal adult franchise in 1932 and also producing the world’s first woman prime minister in late Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Since then Sri Lanka has also had a woman president, a woman Chief Justice, many women Cabinet Ministers, deputy ministers, MPs, Mayors and other political and civic leaders. In recent times, we have succeeded in having a gender quota for women in local government, ensuring that a minimum of 25% of all elected local government representatives are women. Sri Lanka’s basic free education and health care systems have ensured among other gains that we remain high on the global human development index, with a literacy rate of over 90%, long life expectancy and low infant mortality among other quality of life indicators. So, Sri Lanka’s achievements have been not insignificant in our post-independence period.

However, equally noteworthy have been Sri Lanka’s significant failures. Failures which are instrumental in ensuring that we are still a part of the global south, a developing rather than a developed society. These failures lie at the very heart of our society, regarding our identity as to who we are as a nation and the ability of our democratic institutions to resolve the complex issues and competing interests, manifest in any nation or society. Sri Lanka has witnessed massive politically motivated violence in both our south and north, among the majority Sinhala youth, organizing themselves through the JVP and the Tamil youth through the LTTE and similar organizations. The Sinhala Southern JVP uprisings were based on issues which could be broadly categorized on the underlying political theme of economic and social rights, while the Northern and Eastern LTTE struggle, which was anti-democratic in its elimination of internal dissent, merciless and criminal in its conscription of children and terroristic in its attacks on civilians, had its origins and drew its political support broadly due to issues in the areas of civil and political rights.

The prevalence of such issues in itself is actually not uncommon. Any society has competing interests and complex and competing claims to resources and political power. These claims and issues are usually resolved democratically through dialogue, debate and a civilized discourse. Sri Lanka’s failure has been the failure of our political institutions in every area, including the executive, the legislative and judicial branches of government to address these issues in an equitable manner, to be seen and widely accepted as equitable. Resulting in natural conflicts in society being addressed through organized political violence rather than through democratic institutions and processes. Consequently, for almost half our post-independence period of seventy-two years, we have been governed under a period of national emergency, monthly renewed by Parliament, overriding constitutional liberties. We still persist in having on our statue books, the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), introduced as a temporary measure over forty (40) years ago, and currently significantly lacking in internationally accepted norms and standards applicable to counter terrorism legislation.

Economic and Social Rights

Almost thirty years after the end of the second JVP uprising, while we have that political movement as a political party and a distant third leftist force in national politics, Sri Lanka still remains an economically very inequitable society. The top tenth percentile of the population earns nearly forty percent of the national income, and the second percentile approximately another thirty percent or more, leading to one of the more skewed income distribution and wealth disparities of a democratic society. The rest of South Asia is not much better, indicating that the end of the mercantilist economy of the colonial period, has economically benefited some but not the majority in our society. As the world rapidly changes to a knowledge-based economy, driven by technology and information, Sri Lanka is seemingly unprepared to face either the challenges of or benefit from the opportunities of the new economy.

Civil and Political Rights

Over a decade after the end of Sri Lanka’s ruinous, near three decades long civil war, we seem not much nearer to a post war reconciliation process which brings healing and unity to our divided and polarized society. Our divisions were perhaps best exemplified when the most widely debated issue about our Independence Day was whether the national anthem should be sung in Sinhala only or in both Sinhala and Tamil. It was LTTE suicide bomb victim, Member of Parliament and leading lawyer, late Neelen Tiruchelvam, who best in a single sentence described our dilemma, which he described as “the anomaly of having imposed a mono-ethnic state on a multi-ethnic polity”.

Sri Lankan society is diverse, ethnically and in terms of religious belief and practice. Our failures of the past and the challenge of our future, is to ensure that the Sri Lankan state accommodates and indeed protects that diversity. A diversity, which actually enriches us and strengthens us. It is then that all Sri Lankans will truly enjoy the benefits and privileges of the independence, which we won with such expectations and hope, seventy-two long years ago.

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