The unanimous adoption of a resolution by the United Nations Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka last week is notable for the pragmatism that informs it. The idea of an external investigation into the conduct of the military and the political leadership has been bearing down on the island nation for some years now. The erstwhile Rajapaksa administration responded with defiance and belligerent opposition to any move towards accountability, except one that was formulated and executed by the government on its own terms. The moves tended to divide the international community on whether to bail out Sri Lanka or come down on it. In a welcome departure from this trend, countries have come together and adopted, with Sri Lanka’s consent and participation, a resolution that emphasises justice and accountability for excesses committed by both sides, especially in the last phase of the civil war; on a political process to devolve power to the ethnic minorities; and an overall commitment to strengthen governance and democracy and end what many thought was an atmosphere of impunity. The political transformation that this year’s presidential and parliamentary elections ushered in is the main reason for the international community to have come together to aid Sri Lanka in a much-needed process of self-rejuvenation. Its democratic institutions and instruments of governance require a systemic overhaul after having been undermined by the previous regime. This factor has obviously impelled the world to encourage the present Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dispensation by means of a consensus resolution rather than weaken the government’s domestic popularity by imposing an intrusive mechanism.
However, the road ahead will not be smooth. A credible judicial mechanism will have to be evolved and foreign resources such as judges and prosecutors will have to be incorporated with care. An investigation process that inspires the confidence of victims to come forward and depose will have to be put in place. Fixing command responsibility for the bombing of civilians and the execution of those who surrendered, especially on political functionaries and their family members, is not going to be easy and must be marked by due process. The challenge is much bigger than the one relating to finding a political solution. For some, the idea of a judicial mechanism that includes foreign judges to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of war crimes and other offences may seem to fall short of the international inquiry of the sort they favour. To others, it is a rare opportunity to address several issues that defy a solution. A fair conspectus of assumptions underlying the Human Rights Council resolution is that it promotes reconciliation and truth-seeking and may lead to a sense of closure for the victims and a possible guarantee of non-recurrence, and that it opens up yet another opportunity for a political solution. These expectations cannot be belied.