It is understandable that Gamini Peiris, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, in London yesterday, should have reacted so fiercely to the stinging remarks by the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay on her week-long visit to the island. Colombo clearly thought it had done everything to ensure a good report card. Instead Dr Pillay lambasted the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa for large-scale abuses of democracy.
The unjustified impeachment of the Chief Justice and the use of surveillance, intimidation, harassment and disappearance to stifle dissent: these are just some of the deeply worrying abuses she logged during her stay. The end of the brutal civil war brought the opportunity, she said, “to construct a new, vibrant, all-embracing state”, in which the minorities could play their parts on terms of equality with the majority Sinhalese. Instead, the country “is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction”.
Sri Lanka has long been adept at observing the forms of democracy while neglecting the principles on which it rests. Too often pluralism, transparency, equal opportunity and the right to dissent have been honoured more in the breach than the observance.
The country has a troubled history. It endured a brutal civil war lasting from 1983 to 2009. The attempt by the Tamil Tigers to cut the island in two – which would-be peacemakers, including Britain, often appeared to endorse – caused deep bitterness in Colombo. Many Sinhalese believe that the ghastly bloodshed of the final battle, in which an unknown number of civilians died, was the only way to break out of the nightmare of war. And the West’s insistence that alleged war crimes committed during the battle be investigated has deepened the government’s isolation. The acknowledgement by Dr Pillay, herself a Tamil, that the Tigers were “murderous” and a “ruthless organisation” did not go far enough to reverse that.
But for a country with such vast potential, the urge to turn inwards is profoundly unhealthy. It could also be very bad for business. If foreign investors see the island’s politics as “increasingly authoritarian”, with important judicial appointments subject to the fiat of the elite, their confidence in its level playing field for business may be fatally weakened.
Sri Lanka still has a chance. In two months, the Commonwealth heads of government descend on Colombo for their annual summit. Canada has threatened to boycott the event because of the Sri Lankan government’s human rights record and the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee has urged David Cameron not to attend for the same reason. This newspaper agrees. But the likelihood is that the meeting will go ahead as planned, in which case it will be a golden opportunity for Colombo to prove its critics wrong. Re-arranging the scenery will not be enough.