Halfway Isn’t Good Enough on Human Rights
Myanmar and Sri Lanka were praised for minimal progress. Now it’s all falling apart.
Thousands of Sri Lankans poured into the streets on Oct. 30 to demand that President Maithripala Sirisena obey the country’s constitution. The protests came after Sirisena shockingly announced that he was installing his predecessor as president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as prime minister, followed by suspending Parliament for three weeks. Sirisena’s actions raise profound concerns about the future of Asia’s oldest continuous democracy; Sri Lanka already has a prime minister who can only be removed by a no-confidence vote.
For Sri Lanka’s civil society, for its Tamil and Muslim communities, and for concerned observers around the world, the thought of the brutal Rajapaksa back in power is terrifying. Many, both on and off the island, are wondering if there’s more they could have done to prevent this outcome. But if anyone should be asking themselves this question, it should be the U.S. officials who designed and implemented foreign policy on Sri Lanka over the last four years, based on a misguided acceptance of Rajapaksa’s ouster as a full-fledged democratic transition.
This miscalculation is not an isolated policy but a recurring error in U.S. human rights diplomacy. Time and time again, we see a rush to accept limited progress as true change. Even as the United States eagerly lauded the substitution of a slightly less overtly racist and corrupt regime in Sri Lanka for a brutal kleptocracy, it was making a similar mistake in Myanmar. Today, Myanmar’s once-celebrated transition to democracy has piled up a body count of tens of thousands of Rohingya, with 750,000 more forced into Bangladesh.
In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa name is a byword for thuggery and Sinhalese Buddhist supremacism. While in power, Rajapaksa and his family systematically gutted the country’s democratic institutions, violated human rights, and enriched themselves at the expense of ordinary Sri Lankans. Staving off a Rajapaksa return has been a core U.S. goal on the island since Sirisena dramatically defected from his government to defeat him in a bitterly contested election in January 2015. Yet through its overly enthusiastic response to superficial change, the United States failed to push Sri Lanka to make genuine progress. And so, today there are no safeguards in place to prevent the perpetrators of egregious human rights abuses from returning to high office.
In part, the mistake stemmed from relief at getting the bloody-handed Rajapaksa out of office in the first place. His government is accused of committing mass atrocities at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009. By the United Nations’ estimate, as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed by government shelling in the final days of fighting. Thousands more were disappeared, presumed murdered by the security forces, who were under the command of Rajapaksa’s brother, Gotabaya.
Following its victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the military never withdrew from the war zone. Instead, it imposed a brutal occupation on the Tamil-inhabited areas of northeastern Sri Lanka, seizing vast amounts of territory to construct bases, taking over the economy, and establishing massive intelligence networks to surveil and intimidate locals. The hostile presence of the military dominated all aspects of civilian life. Members of the security forces committed property crimes, extrajudicial killings, and sexual violence with impunity.
While Rajapaksa remained in office, U.N. Human Rights Council sessions were the site of regular pitched battles over Sri Lanka’s abysmal performance on human rights. Spurred by the tireless campaigning of Tamil activists and their supporters, the United States and its allies pushed for accountability for past abuses. Predictably, Rajapaksa tacked hard toward China in response. So when Sirisena unseated him in January 2015, members of the international community breathed a sigh of relief. And nine months later, they were thrilled when Sri Lanka’s new government co-sponsored a resolution at the Human Rights Council session requiring transitional justice for wartime atrocities and other human rights improvements.
Sri Lanka assured the international community that it would get to work immediately, promising that a war crimes court would be up and running by the beginning of the new year. But January 2016 came and went with no prosecutions. So did January 2017. The military remained unvetted and heavily deployed throughout Tamil-speaking areas. The notoriously draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act stayed on the books. And in a move reminiscent of his predecessor, Sirisena sent a security official accused of ordering the torture of detainees to represent Sri Lanka at its review by the U.N. Committee Against Torture.
But despite the total absence of structural reform, U.S. officials hailed Sri Lanka under Sirisena as a “global champion of human rights and democratic accountability.” In March 2017, although Sri Lanka had done virtually nothing on transitional justice, the United States supported its request for a two-year extension on its obligations. And meanwhile, the U.S. government ramped up military cooperation with Sri Lanka’s armed forces, providing resources and training to units implicated in serious abuses.
U.S. officials justified these decisions by saying that Sri Lanka needed time and space to pursue politically sensitive policies. Their logic was that pushing too hard on controversial issues might open the door for the still enormously popular Rajapaksa to return to power. But no amount of time and space can substitute for political will. And the United States (and other members of the international community that followed a similar approach) ignored clear evidence that the Sirisena administration was not acting in good faith.
The signs were there from Day One. Immediately following the adoption of the 2015 Human Rights Council resolution, both Sirisena and his now-estranged prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, told their domestic audience that they would never investigate or prosecute the country’s “war heroes.” Sri Lanka’s justice minister threatened legal action against anyone who made accusations against the security forces. Even the official tasked with leading the country’s Office for National Unity and Reconciliation insisted that there was no reason to hold war crimes trials.
Yet rather than tie benefits such as military assistance and Millennium Challenge Compact eligibility to concrete performance on human rights commitments, the United States continued to reward empty promises. The lack of pushback on its hypocrisy gave the Sirisena administration the impression that international scrutiny of Sri Lanka’s rights record was a thing of the past. Consequently, it saw no reason to move forward with politically inconvenient measures such as demilitarization. And meanwhile, abusive practices that had abated or were hidden during the early months of Sirisena’s tenure became commonplace once more: attacks on activists, threats and intimidation of Tamil journalists, harassment serious enough to draw the attention of international watchdog groups. The excessive enthusiasm with which Sri Lanka’s so-called transition was met was not just premature; it actively undermined human rights.
With a Rajapaksa return looking increasingly likely in Sri Lanka, the stakes of shortsighted human rights policy that declares victory at the first sign of progress are clear—just as they have become in Myanmar, South Sudan, and Egypt. The failure to push Sri Lanka to implement key institutional reforms not only betrayed the victims of past abuses, but it will also create new ones. The security forces have not been vetted, none of those responsible for atrocities have been jailed, and surveillance and intelligence networks have not been dismantled. The instruments and agents of repression are all still there, just waiting for their former masters to take them up again.