Sri Lanka’s nine-month old President Maithripala Sirisena seems to be playing his cards just right.

President Maithripala Sirisena addressing the UN General Asembly
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena addressing the 70th session of the UN General Assembly

Sirisena and incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appear to be making friends across the world, including with the all-powerful United States, which has helped them dodge an international war crimes probe.

Within just months after taking over office, they have been able to finally thwart repeated attempts for an international probe. Instead, they have convinced the international community to allow Sri Lanka to conduct a domestic probe over the alleged war crimes that took place during the final stages of the armed conflict against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, where over 40,000 civilians were believed to have been killed.

In an important turning point, the resolution on Sri Lanka titled ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’ presented at the 30th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, was adopted on October 1. The resolution, which secured the support of 25 countries including the US, was passed after no country sought a vote on the text.

On September 30, Sirisena pledged to follow a process of truth seeking, justice, reparation and non-recurrence. Addressing the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sirisena said it was imperative that Sri Lanka adopts a new social, economic and political approach to rise up to the challenges of the 21st century.

“In this regard, reconciliation receives priority attention in my country,” he said.

Detailing his vision, Sirisena said Sri Lanka involves wants to achieve the twin objectives of sustainable development and reconciliation.

“A fundamental requirement in this context is dealing with the past honestly and building a modern Sri Lankan Nation. In dealing with the past, we will follow a process of truth seeking, justice, reparation and non-recurrence. Sri Lanka remains committed to fulfil this responsibility. In this respect, we intend implementing a new program and plan of action in Sri Lanka to advance human rights,” he added.

Soon after his arrival to Colombo from the UNGA session, Sirisena who met with members of the media at his official residence assured that the war crimes probe would be based completely on a domestic mechanism which will be implemented with the provisions of the constitution of the country, while ensuring the sovereignty of the nation.

He termed the October 1 resolution as a ‘great victory’ for Sri Lanka. Sirisena emphasized that even though on September 16, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad Hussein called for the setting up of a special hybrid court to punish the culprits who carried out atrocities against civilians during the final stages of the civil war, he and the Wickremesinghe government had succeeded in excluding an international investigation and the proposed hybrid court to investigate war crimes.

“My first task as President was to improve Sri Lanka’s relation with the international community,” he said, indicating his success in this endeavor following the favorable resolution adopted in Geneva. Under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership, Sri Lanka’s relationship with western countries such as US was strained for years as he tilted towards China for support including for financing mega infrastructure development projects across Sri Lanka.

Meanwhile, Sirisena will convene a series of meetings in due course with representatives of political parties, members of civil society, religious leaders, intellectuals as well as the expatriate community on obtaining recommendations on the way forward to bring about holistic reconciliation among all stakeholders in the country, including the grievances of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka.

Wickremesinghe recently announced that a special counsel will be formed to handle the investigation, along with a new law that will be incorporated which will allow for the limited participation of foreign lawyers and judges, who could assist the domestic investigations process.

David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s South Asia research director, believes that although far from perfect, if  the resolution, along with the underlying commitments of Sri Lanka’s government, is implemented in good faith, it presents an opportunity for victims to finally get the truth and justice they have been waiting for.

“The adoption of this resolution is a turning point for human rights in Sri Lanka, and crucially recognizes terrible crimes committed by both parties during the armed conflict. Any accountability process must have an international component for it to have any credibility, as well as to provide the necessary skills and expertise,” Griffiths said.

It will also be up to the international community and the Sri Lankan authorities to ensure that the victims and their families are genuinely consulted at every step of the process to get to truth and justice.

Over the next months, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) will continue to assess the progress in the implementation of its recommendations and other processes related to reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka.

It is reported that the OHCHR will present an update to the Human Rights Council at the 32nd session mid next year, while a more comprehensive report will be submitted in 2017.

Munza Mushtaq is a senior journalist based in Sri Lanka, and former news editor of The Nation and The Sunday Leader newspapers

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