Nicola Jayawickreme reflects on this week’s Lords debate on the future of Sri Lanka
This week, the House of Lords debated the report on the implementation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). This Commission was established on 15 May 2010, a year after the end of a 30 year long civil war. At the time, the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapakse drew international criticism for appointing members of the LLRC rather than assigning the task to an independent, impartial body.
In the UK, the Coalition government was supportive of the LLRC. Following the publication, Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt issued a welcoming statement and urged the implementation of the report’s recommendations, particularly those calling for credible investigations of alleged extrajudicial killings and the protection of the freedom of expression. This week in the Lords, Conservative Peer Lord Naseby defended the Sri Lankan President’s decision by drawing a parallel between his appointment of the members in the LLRC and the Chilcott Commission, which consists of ‘good eminent people’ from our own Civil Service.
In the debate, Labour Peer Lord Wills emphasized the significance of an upcoming visit to Sri Lanka by the UK Prime Minister and the Queen to the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), in November. Lord Wills argued that the Sri Lankan government would flag the visit as a stamp of approval and a “cleansing of war crimes”. Indeed, the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already said he will not attend unless Sri Lanka’s human rights record improves.
Recent events have further created doubts about the intentions of the Sri Lankan government. The current impeachment proceeding against the Chief Justice, Shirani Bandaranayake has been marked as a step towards ‘constitutional dictatorship’, following presidential interference with the judicial process.
Shadow Minister Lord Triesman told the Lords this week that CHOGM presented an opportunity “in the spirit of Commonwealth standards and reputation – to discuss progress and articulate a possible programme and means of verification of the programme”. Some reconciliatory steps have been taken by the Sri Lankan government. An estimated 11,000 combatants have been rehabilitated and 595 child soldiers are back living with their families. Such steps create some optimism for future peace. But further action is needed.
Sri Lanka has long suffered from conflict as a result of deep ethnic cleavages between the Sinhalese and Tamils, going back thousands of years. If its government is intent on ensuring peace and prosperity, the integration of minority ethnic groups into the political process is essential. As Lord Dholakia said in the Lords debate “political processes have to encapsulate the rights for all groups and the rule of law, and that is fundamental” – an observation echoed by Lord Triesman.
There is still a culture of impunity in Sri Lanka, and human rights violations allegedly continue. Some believe there is no justice or accountability with the LLRC, and are calling for an independent international investigation into war crimes, in order to bring lasting peace.
A period of economic growth in the aftermath of the civil war was sadly short lived. Last year, the economy expanded at the slowest pace since 2009; and November saw inflation accelerate to a three-month high. This can only aggravate efforts of reconciliation, with ethnic minorities being hit the hardest. The overall theme of the Lords debate is vital to Sri Lanka’s progression: a military victory is not enough for peace to ensue. Minorities need to be integrated into the political process; and although steps continue to be taken in the right direction, a significant increase in efforts to make the country more representative of all of its citizens is now vital.
Nicola Jayawickreme grew up in Sri Lanka, and is currently interning in the Opposition Whips Office in the Lords
Published 10th January 2013