Images of Sri Lankans crowding into the presidential palace, gazing upon the finery or taking a dip in the pool were flashed across television networks and newspapers worldwide in July. This was the culmination of months of protest calling for former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign, following a staggering economic crisis that had brought the country to a standstill.
The president fled the country and eventually resigned. He was replaced by his nominee, Ranil Wickremesinghe, a veteran lawmaker who had previously served several times as prime minister.
Things do not bode well for the joyous protesters seen on television and social media. Although Wickremesinghe promised reform and embarked upon crucial negotiations for an International Monetary Fund bailout, he also used the military to disperse protests and arrest dozens of alleged protest organisers.
He has even used the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act to detain three student activists for up to a year without charge. Those attempting to protest the new arrests are driven away by teargas and water cannons.
Wickremesinghe has essentially continued where his predecessor left off. Undermining the rule of law and obstructing justice for rights violations have contributed to Sri Lanka’s current troubles, which is not only an economic calamity but also a political and human rights crisis.
The roots of rights abuses and lawbreaking by officials go back years – or even decades. Sri Lankan governments have appointed alleged abusers to high office and blocked investigations, undermining not just the independence of the judiciary, but the entire justice system. In one rare case where a soldier was convicted of extrajudicial killings, he received a presidential pardon.
During the devastating civil war between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, both sides committed widespread violations of international law. Throughout the conflict and afterward, Sri Lankan society was deeply fractured over ethnicity and religion.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was defence secretary when the war ended, and his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa was president. Both oversaw the security forces’ countless war crimes while Gotabaya Rajapaksa is implicated in several grave rights violations including killing journalists.
The government, disregarding victims, rights activists and United Nations experts, engaged in triumphalism and Sinhala Buddhist ultranationalism after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was defeated in May 2009. Authorities suppressed critics with threats, surveillance, arbitrary arrests, abductions, detention, and torture.
Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the 2015 election and a new government, with Wickremesinghe as prime minister, pledged reform, but with little progress. But even those few advances were reversed after Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the 2019 election after a divisive campaign targeting minority Tamils and Muslims, and promptly amended the constitution to weaken human rights institutions and give the president the power to appoint senior judges. He also undermined institutions, like the Bribery Commission, that are responsible for combatting economic crimes.
The recent protests, although sparked by the economic crisis, reflected a more united call for good governance and accountability. Many Sri Lankans seek constitutional reform and steps to address corruption. But this will need international support and action.
A resolution currently before the United Nations Human Rights Council extends the mandate of a UN project to gather and analyse evidence of war crimes and other crimes under international law that have been committed in Sri Lanka and to prepare the evidence for use in possible future prosecutions.
It also mandates the United Nations to continue monitoring and reporting on the country’s economic and social rights crisis. As people struggle for daily necessities, and the government cracks down on dissent, that is more important than ever.
The Sri Lankan government opposes these measures, falsely claiming that it is already acting to protect human rights.
During a discussion on Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council, India, which has supplied essential items to deal with shortages due to the economic crisis, noted “the lack of measurable progress” on “commitments of a political solution to the ethnic issue.” Several other countries have voiced concerns about lack of human rights protections.
To support Sri Lankans who are calling for change and accountability, it is essential for India and other members of the Council to support the resolution.
Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.