President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision to put an end to the state of emergency came as a surprise even to senior members of his own government. There were media reports that the ruling party leadership had to instruct its members to be present in Parliament to listen to an important announcement to be made by the President. This indicates that the decision to lift the emergency when it lapses in September was not one that was considered by the government as a whole. It therefore appears to have been a decision taken in a hurry and many see a connection to what will transpire soon in Geneva.
The UN’s Human Rights Council is scheduled to commence its meetings in Geneva in September where the issue of accountability of the government in the conduct of the last phase of the war is likely to be canvassed. The government would prefer to delay any international discussion of this issue as long as possible. The government has been putting a great deal of emphasis on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission which is reported to be dealing with some of the most contentious issues, including the authenticity of the videos that have been broadcast on many international television channels and even been viewed in international parliamentary forums.
As the LLRC’s final report is not due until November the government will be hoping to delay any discussion of the accountability issues at the UN’s Human Rights Council until that time. The government is taking the forthcoming sessions of the Council seriously, as it is planning to send at least four government ministers to bolster the strength and credibility of its team of diplomats. By and large the governments that comprise the international community are understanding of governments that have to deal with issues of terrorism, secession and internal conflicts and are aware of the human rights challenges in them. But if the Sri Lankan government wishes its lifting of the emergency to impress the international community, it will need to think through what it will mean.
There are a number of issues that the government will need to consider when the state of emergency lapses. One is the issue of the 6000 or so LTTE suspects currently held in custody under the provisions of the emergency regulations. Another is the issue of the high security zones around the country, and especially in the north and east, where they cover thousands of hectares of land. It is reported that new regulations will be brought under the Prevention of Terrorism Act to keep the detainees in continued custody and the land with the military. As the legality of the continued detention of the LTTE suspects and keeping of land owned by people even after the war is contentious, this is not likely to impress the international community whose goodwill is being sought.
From the time the war ended over two years and three months ago, a powerful section of the international community that comprises some of the country’s main trading and aid partners, has been urging the restoration of normal law, justice to victims and reconciliation through a political solution. The withdrawal of the state of emergency by itself would not be evidence enough that the Sri Lankan government is following such a process. More needs to be done.