On Sunday morning, Gotabaya Rajapaksa claimed victory in Sri Lanka’s Presidential elections having obtained 52.25% of the total votes cast. He did so with a significant margin on his closest rival, Sajith Premadasa, who walked away with a vote share of just 41.99%.
Notwithstanding some very serious electoral violations, including an incident in which shots were fired at a bus-load of Muslim voters in Sri Lanka’s North-West, the contest is widely regarded as having been sufficiently free and fair for the result to stand.
With Premadasa having conceded defeat, Gotabaya Rajapaksa (or ‘Gota’ as he is commonly known) was duly sworn in as President yesterday. He takes the reigns from outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena, who was elected in January 2015 following the surprise defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s brother. It is widely expected that Gotabaya will now seek to install Mahinda as Prime Minister.
The shape of things to come
As a neutral non-partisan organisation, we accept the mandate granted to Gotabaya Rajapaksa and take no view as to how the people of Sri Lanka chose to exercise their democratic rights.
That said, Gota’s ascent to power raises some serious concerns about the future of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law on the island. To understand these concerns, it is necessary to look at both what he has done, and what he says he will do.
To be sure, Gotabaya is not just a ‘strongman’. He is an alleged war criminal, who presided over the deaths of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians. As Defence Secretary (2005-2015) he bore command responsibility for the actions of troops during the bloody final stages of the civil war in 2009; actions which multiple UN investigations have said would likely constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity if established in a court of law. He is on record as suggesting that hospitals and civilians were legitimate military targets. And he is credibly believed (including as referenced in a US State Department report) to have directly ordered the extra-judicial killings of surrendering rebel fighters and their family members.
Then there is Gotabaya’s record after the war, a period in which he and his brothers mounted an unprecedented assault on Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions, plundered state resources, and sought to violently eliminate dissent (including through the use of disappearances and torture on an industrial scale). In addition to a corruption case in the Sri Lankan courts for alleged crimes committed during this time, Gotabaya currently faces two civil in the United States: one for allegedly ordering the torture of eleven individuals (nine Tamils and two Sinhalese), the other for his alleged role in the assassination of a prominent newspaper editor.
There is little evidence of Gotabaya’s intention to chart a radically different course now that he is President. Standing on a national security ticket and emphasising the need for “discipline”, he was cheerily dubbed ‘the Terminator’ by his family and close supporters on the campaign trail. Among his key pledges were ripping up the government’s commitments to deal with legacy of the war, and bringing to an end the few investigations that have been commenced into allegations of serious human rights violations by members of the security sector.
Given the very real possibility of an increase in the number and severity of human rights violations in Sri Lanka, it is important to understand the key risks as well as the kinds of checks, balances, and levers which might be used to mitigate them. Below we examine five key ‘red flags’ to watch for in the coming weeks and months, and consider how those outside of Sri Lanka might effectively pre-empt and respond to them.
1. Immediate risk of reprisals to dissidents
Top of the list is the immediate risk of reprisals posed to human rights defenders, activists, victims, witnesses, and dissenters – many of whom have used the modest increases in civic space over the past five years to voice their rights and challenge those in positions of power. Regardless of whether Gotabaya embarks on a policy of actively targeting his opponents, many will be concerned that his recent rhetoric alone could provide a ‘green light’ for alleged perpetrators and members of the security forces to mete out revenge against those they perceive as having threatened their interests in recent times. Particularly vulnerable will be those like the protesting Tamil relatives of the disappeared who enjoy fewer of the protections afforded to more established civil society organisations.
Members of the international community should closely monitor the situation for at-risk individuals and groups and take all the steps at their disposal, including offers of safe passage, to guarantee their safety. Given that the diplomatic community have encouraged citizens to participate freely in Sri Lanka’s civic space since 2015, this is not simply a matter of doing the right thing. It is also a matter of responsibility.
2. Reneging on commitments to reconciliation and accountability
Unsurprisingly, Gotabaya has already stated that he intends to rip up Sri Lanka’s pledges on reconciliation and accountability for war-time violations – pledges contained in a UN Human Rights Council resolution that was adopted with the support of the government in October 2015. There is also speculation that he could seek to actively reverse what limited progress has been made as part of this reform agenda, including, for example, by dismantling Sri Lanka’s Office on Missing Persons.
To stop that from happening, and to limit the damage if it does, members of the international community must signal clearly to the incoming President the diplomatic and economic consequences that will result should he chose to pull the plug on his government’s earlier promises. That should include, at the very minimum, a commitment to continued scrutiny via the Human Rights Council, with or without the government’s support. But it should also entail a pledge to pursue accountability for war-time violations unilaterally where domestic political will is lacking.
3. Anti-minority ethnic violence
The past few years have seen several very serious, and at times deadly, episodes of orchestrated anti-Muslim rioting by Sinhala Buddhist hardliners in Sri Lanka. The election of Gotabaya, who has previously patronised the groups believed to be behind such mob violence, and who stood and won on an explicitly ethno-nationalist ticket, has stirred fears that minorities could become targets yet again.
Following a campaign period which saw, according to one monitoring organisation, “unprecedented levels of racism”, the international community will have a vital role to play in monitoring hate speech and responding to the attendant risk of identity-based violence.
4. An emboldened security state
While recent years have seen some progress in returning military occupied lands to their rightful owners, and a welcome decrease in the visible presence of the armed forces on the streets, militarisation in the Tamil majority North-East of the country remains a key concern. Under Gotabaya, who has prioritised the need for national security and glorified the role of the armed forces, many are worried that that militarisation could re-intensify, carrying with it the risk of further harassment, intimidation, and surveillance of the civilian population. There are also fears that the “deep state” that Gotabaya is alleged to have orchestrated to such chilling effect in his role as Defence Secretary could yet again come to the fore.
To prevent that from happening, the international community ought to closely monitor the situation on the ground and respond to any increases in militarisation or security sector repression with appropriate sanctions. While a review of security cooperation with the Sri Lankan armed forces is already long overdue – especially in view of the appointment of alleged war criminal Shavendra Silva to army commander – this would be the appropriate place to start in bringing pressure to bear on this issue.
5. Threats to the rule of law and the Constitution
Finally, the election of Gotabaya (who was this time last year engaged in an unsuccessful coup attempt to install his brother as Prime Minister) has raised concerns that Sri Lanka’s constitution and rule of law could yet again be put to the test. Indeed, there are already fears that should the current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe refuse to step aside on his own accord, a re-run of last autumn’s attempt to oust him could be on the cards. More broadly, there is a prevailing worry about how the Rajapaksas’ proven lack of respect for the independence of key institutions, including the judiciary, could play out this time round.
Recent experience in Sri Lanka underscores the value of members of the international community (and especially institutions such as the Commonwealth) speaking up in a unified and principled manner. Correspondingly, it shows the harm that can be done when they stay silent and turn a blind eye. In what could be a very challenging period ahead, they must approach with their eyes open, and use their voice.
Business as usual?
In sum, the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa is likely to pose serious challenges for the promotion and protection of human rights in Sri Lanka – challenges which will demand the international community to depart from a ‘business as usual’ approach to working with the government. As we highlight in our recent report, A Decade of Impunity, recent international engagement with Sri Lanka has failed to help bring about the accountability that is so desperately needed to prevent a recurrence of serious human rights violations. The election of an alleged perpetrator to one of Sri Lanka’s highest offices, arguably a symptom of that failure, is also an opportunity for the international community to change course. They should seize it.
 According to one reporter, the “European Union election observation mission concluded that the Sri Lankan presidential election was largely free of violence and technically well-managed, but that unregulated campaign spending, abuse of state resources and media bias affected the level playing field.”
 Recent research has revealed that in some areas the civilian-soldier ratio remains as high as two to one, with the army heavily involved in several aspects of civilian life, including the running of pre-schools and farms.