[op-ed snap] Whither human rights in Sri Lanka?


  1. Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009 and international actors have infused narratives of the war with stories of human rights abuses
  2. Eight years since, it has only become clear how irrelevant current human rights campaigns are to the war-torn people and their struggles
  3. It is the singular focus on international human rights intervention that is killing a once-vibrant local human rights movement in the country

Notes from Geneva:

  1. Sri Lanka was again in the limelight at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva this month
  2. The September 2015 resolution, adopted months after regime change in Sri Lanka, signalled a departure from the Council’s earlier antagonistic stand, with Sri Lanka itself co-sponsoring the resolution to address war-time accountability

The new resolution:

  1. The new resolution, on March 23, co-sponsored by the United States, Sri Lanka and other countries, accedes to Sri Lanka’s request for an extension of two more years to fulfil its commitments on accountability
  2. The Tamil nationalist campaign, including that by many Tamil politicians, was predictably about opposing such an extension
  3. In the island’s Sinhala-majority south on the other hand, the debate centred on whether any future justice mechanism for accountability should include foreign judges or not
  4. That Sri Lanka will get its extension, that foreign judges will never be allowed to enter the country and that the U.S. will shield Sri Lanka at the UN, are political realities that escape those firmly pursuing this prolonged engagement in Geneva

What has eight years of international human rights engagement really achieved?

  1. The record is one of reports and counter-reports by the human rights community, the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil nationalist lobby, as well as multiple resolutions in the UNHRC
  2. If only the spotlight on Geneva could be turned towards the ground situation, it will make evident the emptiness of these campaigns
  3. While the state has been rather slow to address the issue of disappearances and military land grabs, these campaigns hardly address the economic deprivation of the missing people’s families and the predicament of the landless
  4. Furthermore, the rights of women, fisherfolk, workers, oppressed castes and the northern Muslims seldom figure in popular human rights narratives

Shift in the movement:

  1. The human rights movement had a different character during its early decades
  2. The Civil Rights Movement emerged after the brutal state repression of the 1971 JVP insurrection, an uprising by rural Sinhala youth, and took up the legal cases of those in custody
  3. Some years later in the context of the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979 and a state of Emergency, the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality, a membership organisation with a significant presence in Jaffna, mobilised people against state repression of Tamil youth during the early years of the armed conflict
  4. Some of the trade unionists who organised the general strike of 1980, which was crushed by the J.R. Jayewardene-led regime, went on to form the Movement for the Defence of Democratic Rights to resist the authoritarian attacks on democracy
  5. With the war in the late 1980s, the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) tried creating space for the university community to monitor the various armed actors, including the Sri Lankan military, the Tamil armed movements and the Indian Peace Keeping Force
  6. Their work also addressed the disastrous political developments engulfing the Tamil community
  7. These organisations placed political critique and the mobilisation of people at the heart of their work
  8. However, the targeting of activists and increased political repression by the state and the LTTE, curtailed the democratic space for such work, particularly in the north and the east
  9. The growing international attention on the protracted conflict and increasing donor funding for non-governmental organisations (NGO) in Colombo, brought about the shift of appealing to international forums

After the war ended:

  1. Over the last decade, with the cataclysmic end to the war and the intransigent authoritarianism of the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led regime, human rights engagement backed by powerful western interests deviated the broad set of rights and justice concerns onto war crimes investigation in Geneva
  2. In effect, the international human rights community, national NGOs and the Tamil nationalist lobby, all placed their bets on internationalisation, without considering the political space that was opening after the war

War-time accountability:

  1. In this context, the deteriorating rural economy and the political marginalisation of the war-torn people continues even as year after year they are asked to await the verdict of human rights gods
  2. Indeed, Geneva has become a convenient cover for the state’s failings, the Tamil nationalists’ hollow politics and the international donors’ questionable agendas
  3. Together, these actors have made a real mess of post-war reconstruction

Sri Lankan war crimes horrific: U.N. report:

  1. The media in Sri Lanka dramatises the proceedings in Geneva, as if Sri Lanka is at the centre of the world
  2. The geopolitical changes with the crisis in Syria, the populist racism of the Trump Presidency and anti-immigrant xenophobia in Europe are rarely considered
  3. Human rights work has increasingly become about the perverse parading of victims and their families in front of powerful international actors, and dispatching statements signed by NGOs and individuals to the UN

Engaging the state:

  1. The earlier human rights movement with a left perspective valued international solidarity, for example with Palestine, which necessarily entailed a critique of imperialism
  2. Today’s campaigns have become dependent on western donors
  3. This apolitical variant of human rights activism has no qualms accommodating, or even endorsing, rabid Tamil nationalists who are at the forefront of the campaign for accountability, while remaining silent on the LTTE’s grave crimes

Core historical problems:

  1. The state is at the core of the historical problems, whether it is repressive militarisation, the reinforcement of majoritarian interests or the centralisation of state power in Colombo
  2. But reforming the state requires direct challenges by its citizenry, rather than flight to international forums
  3. That depends on a broad political movement and a domestic process consisting of all the communities, such as the one that threw out the Rajapaksa regime
  4. If the unravelling international order may finally end the internationalisation of Sri Lanka, the tremendous loss of credibility within the country with such internationalisation may make it impossible to revitalise the human rights movement
  5. However, recognising the hollowness of narrow, donor-driven human rights engagement that happily coexists with dangerous nationalist politics, is a necessary starting point for envisioning a broader social justice movement
  6. Such political rethinking and the forging of progressive movements is a priority to address the tremendous challenges facing post-war Sri Lanka


For mains- the global issue of human rights violation using the case of Sri Lanka.

[op-ed snap] Elusive reconciliation


  1. A United Nations report released last week on the progress of reconciliation efforts by the Sri Lankan government

The UN Report:

  1. It raised serious concerns about the delay in addressing allegations of war crimes and in meeting other promises Colombo made when it co-sponsored a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in 2015
  2. The report warns the government that the lack of accountability threatens the momentum towards lasting peace
  3. It also alleges that cases of excessive use of force, torture and arbitrary arrests still continue in Sri Lanka, almost eight years after the country’s brutal civil war ended

Electoral promises:

  1. Sirisena came to power on a promise that he would restore the rule of law, end the country’s international isolation and take steps towards reconciliation with the Tamil ethnic minority
  2. The political momentum was also in favour of the government as it had the support of the dominant sections of the two largest parties in the country
  3. In 2015, when Sri Lanka agreed to a host of measures at the UNHRC, including a judicial process to look into the war crimes, hopes were high

Journey so far:

  1. Undeniably, the government has made some slow progress in addressing the issue of reconciliation
  2. Compared to the previous regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sirisena administration has reached out to Tamils and initiated constitutional and legal reforms
  3. It has also passed enabling legislation to establish an Office of Missing Persons to help find some of the 65,000 people reported missing during the war
  4. But on key issues such as establishing a hybrid judicial mechanism with domestic and foreign judges and returning the military-occupied lands to Tamil civilians in the north and east, there has been no tangible progress
  5. The latest UN report comes at a time when over a hundred displaced Tamil families are protesting at administrative offices in the north and east asking for their lands to be returned

Effects of this delay in improving administration:

  1. This delay is alienating the government’s allies, eroding the faith of the public, especially war victims, and giving more time to the opposition to regroup itself
  2. Issues such as continuing use of excessive force and arbitrary arrests suggest that the government is either not serious in changing the way the police system works or is incapable of doing so
  3. The Sirisena-Wikremesinghe government should seize the moment and start addressing the core issues, keeping reconciliation and the future of Sri Lanka in mind


“Know about thy neighbours”, for UPSC can test you on such issues. The issue of Tamil minority in Sri Lanka is directly connected with India, keep track of what is happening in this regard.

UN body slams Sri Lanka

  1. Source: The UN human rights office
  2. It criticised the government’s slow progress in addressing wartime crimes
  3. Reports of abuses including torture remain widespread in Sri Lanka eight years after the end of a decades-long civil war
  4. The island has made “worryingly slow” progress in addressing its wartime past, warning this could threaten lasting peace and stability
  5. Torture: It pointed to the island’s own Human Rights Commission’s acknowledgement of complaints illustrating the routine use of torture by the police throughout the country as a means of interrogation and investigation
  6. The prevailing culture of impunity for perpetrating torture has undoubtedly contributed to this situation
  7. Background: At least 1,00,000 people died in the conflict between Tamil separatists and government forces that ended in 2009
  8. The UN has been pushing for a special court to investigate allegations that government forces killed up to 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of fighting


The continuation on issue of war crimes and human rights violations in Sri Lanka.

Constitutional issues in Sri Lanka- II

  1. Religion: Despite the existing constitutional position of providing Buddhism the foremost place, the Supreme Court has called Sri Lanka a secular State
  2. Suggestion: All religions be given equal status while protecting and fostering Buddhism
  3. Most controversial: The merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces
  4. One of its suggestions allows the current structure of nine provinces with constitutional provisions for power- sharing

Constitutional issues in Sri Lanka- I

  1. The official committee on constitutional reforms in Sri Lanka has not been able to arrive at a consensus while making recommendations on several contentious areas
  2. These include the nature of state, national flag, religion, merger of provinces and land powers
  3. In many ways, views of the committee present a microcosm of diversities of views and positions in society
  4. Flag: The committee favours retaining the present national flag or designing one without any reference to ethnicity, while representing Sri Lankan collective life
  5. Or framing a new flag symbolising the equality of all ethnic groups
  6. Nature of the state: The panel has suggested three formulations, one has no reference to unitary or federal
  7. Another proposal uses the term unitary & talks of multi-tier governance systems

Sri Lanka panel proposes Bill of Rights

  1. The official committee on constitutional reforms in Sri Lanka has come up with an exhaustive Bill of Rights
  2. It also has provisions for curtailment of powers of the office of Governor, a subject that has been of great interest to the Northern and Eastern Provinces
  3. If the Bill of Rights as proposed by panel is accepted by the country, it would be among the the most modern documents on rights in the world
  4. It covers 32 types of rights, ranging from right to life (not included in the 1978 Constitution) to freedom of religion to rights of people with diverse sexual and gender identities

Wigneswaran seeks India’s help on new Constitution

  1. Context: Sri Lanka is in process of drafting a new Constitution
  2. Background: The 13th Amendment was an outcome of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord
  3. News: CM of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province called upon India to ensure that the spirit behind the 13th Constitutional Amendment be retained in the new Constitution of Sri Lanka
  4. India could function as the guarantor of Sri Lankan Tamil interests through the 13th Amendment
  5. Challenge: There had been a perception among sections of Sinhalese that federalism meant separation

Learn about 13th Amendment of Sri Lankan constitution

  1. Background: India and Sri Lanka signed an agreement in 1987 to devolve powers to the Tamil majority north and east region of Sri Lanka
  2. The region lacked autonomy in administration and was controlled by Central govt, which was mostly run by Sinhalese community
  3. Explanation: The 13th amendment was introduced to create provincial councils to fulfill the accord
  4. Criticism: The central govt. did not devolve land and police powers to the provinces

Tamil areas in Sri Lanka are the pockets of poverty

  1. Context: World Bank study on poverty in Sri Lanka
  2. News: The regions with the highest rate of poverty in Sri Lanka are areas inhabited by Tamils
  3. Reasons: Lack of access to the labour market and high unemployment rates, particularly among the youth and among educated women
  4. Future: Implementation of programmes aimed at improving market accessibility, promote entrepreneurship among educated youth and schemes to help ex-combatants and women-headed households

Sri Lanka divided over India’s possible role in political reform

  1. Context: External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s recent visit to Sri Lanka
  2. Background: India and Sri Lanka signed the 1987 Accord, whose outcome was the 13th Amendment
  3. Issue: Whether and to what extent India should be involved in the Sri Lanka’s ongoing constitutional reform process
  4. What is India’s stand? – India is pressing that it should be implemented fully.
  5. What’s in the Amendment? – It paves the way for the establishment of Provincial Councils all over the country

Colombo yet to end impunity enjoyed by security forces: HRW

  1. The Human Rights Watch’s annual report shows that the present Sri Lankan govt took no significant measures to end impunity for security force abuse.
  2. Earlier, the present govt. initiated a new, more open dialogue with the international community in 2015.
  3. The govt. had also not yet repealed the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act.
  4. Although the pervasive culture of fear is largely gone and positive measures have been adopted.
  5. But, the previous government’s disastrous restructuring of independent state institutions needs to be fully dismantled.

13th Amendment to be basis of constitutional reforms: Chandrika

  1. The 13th Constitutional Amendment would certainly form part of the basis of constitutional reforms to address the country’s ethnic question.
  2. The former President said any solution to be worked out should be acceptable to all communities.
  3. It should embody fundamental freedom with respect to religion, worship, speech and thought and ensure equal opportunities.
  4. She stressed that alongside accountability, reconciliation programmes are extremely important.

Sri Lanka may have new Constitution by mid-2016

  1. The 1978 Constitution of Sri Lanka may well become a thing of the past by the middle of next year if the present plan fructifies.
  2. Govt. has proposed to convert the existing 225-member-strong Parliament into Constitutional Assembly.
  3. The 1972 Constitution was billed as the country’s first republican Constitution.
  4. However, the 1978 Constitution, ushered in the system of executive presidency.

U.N. envoy hails 19th amendment @Sri Lanka

  1. The 19th Constitutional Amendment envisages a dilution of powers of the Executive Presidency and other constitutional reforms in Sri Lanka.
  2. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein believes that this will bring a renewed hope for democracy and the rule of law.

19th amendment only half way measure to abolish executive presidency

“The government itself has gone public saying that it could not go the full distance,” Jayampathi Wickramaratne, a constitutional lawyer who was involved in drafting the 19A, said.

If you are talking of percentages the powers of the presidency have been reduced by about 60 to 65%.

Sri Lanka adopts 19th Amendment

  1. The legislation envisages the dilution of many powers of Executive Presidency, which had been in force since 1978.
  2. The 225-strong Parliament cleared the Bill with 212 members voting in favour of the legislation. 10 were absent – 1 voted against – 1 abstained.

  3. Among the important features of the Bill:
    • The reduction in the terms of President & Parliament from 6 years to 5 years
    • Re-introduction of a 2-term limit that a person can have as President
    • The power of President to dissolve Parliament only after 4 1/2 years [unlike one year, as prevalent now]
    • The revival of Constitutional Council & the establishment of independent commissions.

:( We are working on most probable questions. Do check back this section.

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