Rajapaksa regime under UNHRC, Commonwealth scrutiny

On February 13, Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said in her annual report to the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that Sri Lanka’s government has not taken enough steps recommended by its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Although the LLRC is seen as a flawed attempt to heal Sri Lanka after decades of fratricidal conflict, last year the Human Rights Council adopted a U.S. motion calling on the government to act on the LLRC’s recommendations. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government ignored the resolution, but the Americans say they will make a similar motion at this year’s meeting of the 22nd session of the UNHRC, which opens on February 25 in Geneva.

The Americans want Rajapaksa to investigate his army for war crimes. However, under his regime, the government has become not only increasingly authoritarian but also reacted with increasing belligerence to international criticism. In recent years, it has lashed out at Sri Lankan citizens who dared to be openly critical of its policies in Geneva or other overseas forums, even charging some with treasonous behavior. Most of these targets had dared to weigh in on the major issue last year in Geneva–how the government acted after the defeat of the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 2009, after 26 years of conflict. But there were also several people who spoke about attacks on the media, which have taken place with perfect impunity.

How the government handles what is almost sure to be another round of harsh criticism of its post-conflict history will be closely watched by heads of other Commonwealth governments. In November, Colombo is scheduled to be the venue for the biennial Commonwealth heads of Government Meeting. There has been a steady undertow of criticism about holding the meeting there, given all the questions about the Rajapaksa government’s commitment to human rights, reconciliation, and a free media. Britain has already warned that it will only attend if the government can demonstrate its commitment to uphold the Commonwealth values of good governance and respect for human rights. Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma recently made a trip to Colombo to discuss the issue, and the threat of a pullout lingers.

On Friday night, the president announced that Minister of Plantation Industries Mahinda Samarasinghe will lead the Sri Lankan delegation in Geneva, which he has done before. The criticism that comes down on Sri Lanka in Geneva in the coming weeks, and how Samarasinghe responds while on the world stage, will influence the decision of Sharma and his Commonwealth colleagues. So far, things don’t look good. Journalists in Sri Lanka say the atmosphere has thickened and that space for criticism in the media has become even more limited than usual. And the vicious swipes directed at journalists in the past few years could well reverberate with the Commonwealth.