More than four years after Sri Lanka’s ethnic-fueled internal conflict came to an end after 26 years, the country has yet to implement a viable plan for lasting peace and reconciliation.
In March, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a U.S.-led resolution calling for the “establishment of a truth-seeking mechanism as an integral part of a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to transnational justice” in Sri Lanka.
The resolution came in response to continued post-conflict occurrences of gender-, ethnic-, political- and religious-based violence, as well as the government’s reluctance to investigate and hold perpetrators accountable for alleged serious violations of international law. Those violations occurred during the final stages of Sri Lanka’s conflict, which left tens of thousands of Tamil civilians dead.
The Human Rights Council’s resolution fell on deaf ears. When Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, visited the island in August to observe the country’s progress for herself, she received numerous reports of ongoing human rights violations and land grabs by the military, noting afterward that Sri Lanka appeared to be heading in “an increasingly authoritarian direction.”
Sri Lanka may have been the first democracy in South Asia, but these issues are hardly characteristic of one.
To secure lasting peace and stability, Sri Lanka needs a durable and equitable political system that ensures all citizens are fairly represented and afforded equal rights and protections.
Elections were held in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province last month for the first time ever, but there were numerous reports of violence and intimidation at the polls, particularly against ethnic-Tamil candidates and supporters. Furthermore, since the election the Supreme Court has diminished what little authority these provincial councils currently hold by taking away their land and police powers, diluting the 13th Amendment. Currently, executive authority is held by an ex-military governor and the president, along with his two brothers, who already control more than 70 percent of the nation’s finances.
To support a reversal of the ongoing problems, we are launching the Congressional Caucus on Ethnic and Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka. The caucus will work to educate members of Congress about the current human rights situation and achieve solutions for the protection of ethnic and religious rights of all citizens, including Tamils, Hindus, Christians and Muslims.
We will also be working to adopt a congressional resolution sponsored by Reps. Michael G. Grimm, R-N.Y., and Rush D. Holt, D-N.J., that expresses support for rebuilding, resettlement and reconciliation in order to ensure lasting peace in Sri Lanka. Resolution 247 also calls for devolution of power, equal rights and “the establishment of an independent international mechanism to look into allegations of war crimes and other human rights violations committed by all sides” during and after the armed conflict.
Given the magnitude of horrors Sri Lankans bore witness to, and how the most egregious alleged violators of international law remain unpunished, accountability for the guilty is essential for helping those who have suffered to heal, and the country’s diverse population reconcile.
If Sri Lanka can successfully address the underlying causes of tension that sparked the decades’ long ethnic conflict — discrimination, fear and violence — and begin in earnest efforts to advance reconciliation and accountability, the United States will regain a key, truly democratic partner in a region of increasing geopolitical importance.
But we must continue to purposefully and dynamically engage with the government of Sri Lanka for a return to peaceful stability. It’s time to start putting forth concrete solutions to help Sri Lanka reach the goals necessary to move the country forward.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.