As usual, the resolution on Sri Lanka at the September session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is expected to list the many shortcomings in the island nation’s approach to the question of human rights since the war against the Tamil militants ended in May 2009. 

However, the UNHRC is expected to end its discussion on Sri Lanka on a conciliatory note given the change in the political and economic situation in the country.

Though backed by the hardline, anti-West, anti-UNHRC and pro-China Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the Ranil Wickremesinghe regime has taken a U-turn from the SLPP’s foreign and domestic political and economic policies. This should please the West. 

Wickremesinghe has assured the West that he would attend to some of the human rights issues bothering them, and has, in fact, taken some tentative steps, such as de-listing six formerly pro-LTTE Tamil organizations and over 300 individual LTTE supporters. This has been welcomed by the Tamil organizations both at home and overseas. On the international front, he has visibly distanced himself from China, just as China has distanced itself from Sri Lanka by refusing to extend any significant aid to help Sri Lanka tide over the current economic crisis. Wickremesinghe is manifestly leaning towards China’s pro-west rivals, India and Japan. 

Initially, Western envoys in Colombo were very critical of the stern measures taken by Wickremesinghe to scatter the Aragalaya protesters. But he intelligently used the West’s own actions to curb violent protesters in their countries to silence the critics. The Wickremesinghe government is manifestly eschewing abrasive language in dealing with the West in contrast to the Rajapaksa regime. Diplomats who attended Foreign Minister Ali Sabry’s briefing noted that the government was keen on cooperating with the UNHRC and not just pooh-poohing its charges. 

At the September UNHRC session, Sabry is unlikely to be as combative as G.L. Peiris was in March. While Sabry would politely but firmly state the inoperability of some of the UNHRC’s demands, such as giving permission to an UNHRC team to collect fresh evidence of war crimes independently, he would not use the combative language used by Peiris. Referring to the relevant clause in the UNHRC statement, Peiris had said: “The fundamental deficiency is its intolerably intrusive character, impinging as it does on core functions and responsibilities of organs of the Sri Lankan State, overwhelmingly mandated by the people of our country at three successive elections.”

Sabry is expected to state that a foreign inquiry of the kind envisaged will be a violation of the Sri Lankan constitution.

Economic Reforms    

What must be heartening to the West is Wickremesinghe’s economic liberalization program. He told The Economist: “Company law has to be amended, a whole lot of commercial laws, we are looking at ease of doing business. So that means cutting through so many regulations. There are so many laws for how to operate even a basic item—there are so many authorities running by themselves. I’m also looking at the BOI [Board of Investment], we have to look at the overall investment effort of Sri Lanka. I’m not satisfied with it. The money we put in we haven’t gotten back. So I suppose in one way this is a disaster, but it’s also an opportunity to create something new, like we did in 1977.” 

Among the institutions in line for privatization are Sri Lankan Airlines, and Telecom. The Ceylon Electricity Board and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, hugely uneconomical institutions, might be restructured. Some key opposition leaders are backing these measures. The State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are a huge drain on the resources of Sri Lanka and Wickremesinghe is aware that this sector has to be reformed to secure an IMF bailout. 

In a piece on SOEs in The Diplomat Talal Rafi writes: “Sri Lanka has 527 SOEs and 55 of them are identified as strategically important. As of 2019, Sri Lanka’s SOE losses were greater than the national expenditures on education and health combined. Adding to the problem, just one in 10 SOEs have made public their financial information, raising questions of transparency.”

“SOEs in Sri Lanka are set up in general in a way that will lead them to fail. There are no budgetary constraints, with the Treasury supporting them. Many SOEs also borrow from other SOEs with no plan for paying the loans back, with the Ceylon Electricity Board borrowing from the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation as an example. Many SOEs also borrow from the two state-owned banks, Bank of Ceylon and Peoples Bank. These SOEs will not be able to borrow from private lenders due to their unprofitable structures, but with political interference, they are able to borrow from state financial institutions.”

“The monopolistic nature of SOEs also gives them little incentive to be innovative. The end result is that the consumer receives products or services that are not the best of quality. And with SOEs occupying monopolies in many industries, this shuts out these industries from the private sector and increases red tape, resulting in delays and pushing Sri Lanka down in the ease of doing business rankings.”

“The structure of state-owned entities in Sri Lanka has many problems. The labor costs of SOEs in Sri Lanka are around 70 percent higher than those of private firms, with the labor productivity of SOEs seeing a steady decline over the past decade. There is a lack of internal audits and financial disclosure, reducing the incentive to work efficiently. Mismanagement, corruption, and overstaffing by politicians are major problems faced by SOEs.”

West’s Positive Response

And the West, Japan and India are responding positively to Wickremesinghe’s reformist agenda. Despite dismay over the docking of the Chinese research and surveillance vessel Yuan Wang 5 at Hambantota port, Indian Foreign Minister S.Jaishankar has pledged to help Sri Lanka negotiate with the IMF.  Japan also did so.  Japan has provided a grant of LKR 761 million for the Human Resource Development Scholarship (JDS) project to enhance capacity building of public sector officials.  Earlier, Japan had given US$ 1.5 million to enable UNICEF to procure medicines for over 1.2 million people, among them 53,000 pregnant mothers and nearly 122,000 children in immediate need. President Wickremesinghe is to visit to visit Japan in September.  

The UK has launched a consultation on new trading rules called the ‘Developing Countries Trading Scheme’ (DCTS) which will give opportunities to grow free and fair trade with 70 qualifying countries including Sri Lanka. The proposed scheme will mean more opportunity and less bureaucracy. This includes improvements such as lower tariffs and simpler rules of origin requirements for countries exporting to the UK, allowing countries to diversify their exports and grow their economies. The British High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Sarah Hulton, said that would enable Sri Lankan businesses to access the UK market more easily. Bilateral trade between the UK and Sri Lanka stood at GBP1.2 billion in 2020, and there is room for growth, she said.

But Barrage will Continue

Nevertheless, Sri Lanka will face bombardment at the UNHRC from the High Commissioner of Human Rights as well delegates from the Core Group backed by a plethora of human rights organizations. The line-up will include the Sri Lankan Catholic church which is aggrieved by the inconclusive investigations into the 2019 Easter Sunday blasts which claimed over 260 lives mostly of Catholics praying in churches.

The Tamil National Alliance would be asking the UNHRC to apply external jurisdiction to try Sri Lankan military offcials deemed to be “war criminals”. Those involved in the protests to oust the Gotabaya and Wickremesinghe regimes would also be demanding punishment for suppressing dissent by force.