The limits of international pressure


By Jehan Perera

The last fortnight has seen several important international visitors to Sri Lanka.  These have included a large number of Parliamentarians from Commonwealth countries who attended the meeting of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in Colombo.  The Sri Lankan government took this opportunity to present its side of recent history and post-war developments to the visiting dignitaries.  Delegations of the Parliamentarians were taken on well organized visits to different parts of the country, including the north and east.  Media reports indicate that many of them were impressed by the normalcy they witnessed as well as the economic development of the former war zones of the north and east. 

Two other important visits of a more critical bent also took place during this period.  One was the visit by US Undersecretary of State Robert Blake and the other was the visit by a three member team from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.  During his visit, Undersecretary Blake expressed his hopes and aspirations for the country, including the resumption of government-TNA dialogue on a political solution, the holding of Provincial Council elections for the Northern Province and the implementation of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.  Most of the issues he raised were ones taken up by the LLRC in its report, and included the issue of investigations into alleged human rights violations in the course of the war.

The visit of the three member UN team was more on a low profile.  This visit followed the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2012 by a majority vote.  The resolution called on the Sri Lankan government to implement the recommendations of the LLRC and also to obtain technical assistance from the UN especially with regard to issues pertaining to the alleged violations of international law in the course of the war.  The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is expected to report back on the progress in respect of the implementation of the UNHRC resolution in March 2013.  The coincidence of the Blake visit with the UN team’s visit was marked, especially as it was the United States that had sponsored the resolution over the strenuous opposition of the Sri Lankan government.


By and large the issues taken up by Undersecretary Blake during his visit have been taken up in the Action Plan prepared by the government in respect of the LLRC recommendations.  The implementation of these recommendations is to take place in the coming period.  The question is how effective will be the implementation of the LLRC recommendations taken on by the Action Plan.  For instance, the government has appointed military courts of inquiry into the issue of human rights violations during the war on the grounds that this is standard practice in other countries as well.  It has also tasked the security forces and Ministry of Defence with investigating abductions and disappearances although these are the very institutions that the victims have raised questions about.  The government’s strategy in dealing with international pressure appears to be one of accommodating them in external form.

Today, the feeling of betrayal and vulnerability that accompanied the shock of the defeat in the UN Human Rights Council in March appears to have evaporated.  It has been replaced with a new approach to the international community that includes going along with it in form, but not necessarily in spirit and substance.   At the same time, the divisions within the international community have facilitated the Sri Lankan resistance to it.  Even within the United States, which led the campaign against Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council on the issue of war crimes and the need for accountability, the State Department is not necessarily supported by decisions by other branches of the US government.  A US court has decided that a legal case filed against President Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot be heard as he is protected as a government leader, regardless of the merits of the complaint against him.  In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the confidence of the government that it can handle international pressures has increased.

In addition, in the modern world countries have less ability to coerce other countries to do what they would rather not do.  International relations today are more about politics where images are important and numbers count.  The Sri Lankan government has become adept at getting numbers on its side.  It has honed this skill in local politics, and is now able to apply it skillfully to international politics as well.  In addition, Sri Lanka practiced solidarity in being with the majority of Commonwealth countries that oppose the setting up of a Commonwealth human rights investigative mechanism. As a country that has recently been engaged in polemics with Western countries on the issues of human rights and national sovereignty, the Sri Lankan contribution to this debate would have been much appreciated by other non-Western countries.


The victory of the government at the provincial elections will also serve to reinforce the government’s confidence that it can continue on its present path without changing direction. The government today controls all the Provincial Councils and is once again inducing those elected from rival parties to join it with the promise of ministerial positions. The government has a 2/3 majority in Parliament obtained not through elections but by inducing Members of Parliament elected from opposition parties to cross over to the governing party by offering them posts of Ministers.  This strategy subverts internationally accepted democratic norms for which inducer and the induced are equally responsible for the weakening of the system of checks and balances that is essential in a healthy democracy.  The government has no internal opposition capable of restraining it, or pushing it in the direction of problem solving of national issues. 

For instance, the government has put out a National Action Plan for implementing human rights. While this plan has been welcomed by many civic groups who were hopeful of its implementation, there is little evidence so far that the plan is being implemented.  Human Rights are not being adequately protected by the State despite the presentation of a National Human Rights Action Plan to the international community.  It is necessary for the Rule of Law and the protection of human rights that there is a police which will have the independence to act according to the law.  When the police is at the beck and call of the politicians belonging to the ruling political party the police become not the Police of the State or the people but the police of the ruling political elite. 

Despite the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission recommending the separation of the Police Department from the Ministry of Defence and the establishment of independent commissions for the police and public service there is no sign that this is about to happen any time soon.  A political solution by all parties in the Sri Lankan polity, both within and outside Parliament, which addresses the problems of impunity, militarization, breakdown of law and order, and the reduction of the concentration of power within the government continues to be the need in Sri Lanka.  There is a need for the decentralization, devolution and sharing of power amongst independent institutions that will ensure a check and balance on central power within the framework of a united and law-abiding country in which international standards are met. 

While current indications are that such political reform is a distant prospect, the pressure for reform by the international community and by national political parties and civil society must continue.

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