Colombo/Brussels, 11 January 2010: No matter which of the two main Sinhalese candidates wins Sri Lanka’s 26 January presidential election, the international community must take steps to ensure he addresses the marginalisation of Tamils and other minorities in the interest of peace and stability.

Sri Lanka: A Bitter Peace,* the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, examines how eight months after the military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the post-war policies of President Mahinda Rajapaksa have deepened rather than resolved the grievances that generated and sustained militancy. Though the election campaign between Rajapaksa and retired General Sarath Fonseka has now opened up some new political space, Sri Lanka has yet to make significant progress in reconstructing its battered democratic institutions or establishing conditions for a stable peace.

“The victory over the LTTE will remain fragile unless Sinhalese-dominated political parties make strong moves towards a more inclusive and democratic state”, says Donald Steinberg, Crisis Group’s Deputy President for Policy. “Donor governments and international financial institutions should strengthen voices for reform by collectively pressing for democratisation and demilitarisation throughout Sri Lanka, but especially in the north and east”.

The return to their home districts of most of the quarter million Tamils displaced from the Northern Province, and the increased freedom of movement for the nearly 100,000 still in military-run camps, are important steps forward. The resettlement process has failed to meet international standards for safe and dignified returns, however, and the damage from the government’s humiliating internment will require much work to repair.

The brutal nature of the conflict has undermined Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions and governance. All ethnic communities are suffering from the collapse of the rule of law. Disappearances and political killings associated with the government’s counterinsurgency campaign have been greatly reduced since the end of the war. Some Tamil prisoners held under emergency laws have begun to be released. However, impunity for abuses by state officials continues, and fear and self-censorship among civil society and political activists remain widespread. Rajapaksa’s government continues to maintain and use the Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations to weaken its political opposition.

Clear international support for reforms that all Sri Lankans would benefit from and might be willing to support are crucial. These include: ending emergency rule, establishing the Constitutional Council and independent commissions, depoliticising the judiciary, preventing everyday police torture and curbing impunity for state offences. International actors need to press for accountability for abuses by both sides during the war, as well as challenge the government’s post-war policies. Donors should condition further development assistance on governance reforms designed to curb impunity and make the government accountable to citizens of all communities.

“There have been no investigations into any of the credible allegations of violations of human rights law by senior government and the LTTE leaders over the course of the war”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “But only when political and legal reforms have begun will there be any chance at a true accounting for the terrible violence that all communities in Sri Lanka have undergone”.

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