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Sri Lanka report: UN Rights Commissioner urges the Human Rights Council to continue to closely monitor developments in Sri Lanka

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Summary:

Pursuant to resolution 40/1 of the Human Rights Council, the present update assesses the progress made in implementing Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, particularly during 2019.

While some progress has been made since 2015 in promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in line with resolution 30/1, the inability of the Government to deal comprehensively with impunity and to reform institutions may cause the recurrence of human rights violations. The High Commissioner is concerned by various signs indicating a possible reversal of past commitments by the Government which would setback the promotion of reconciliation, accountability and human rights, reduce civic space and erode important institutional safeguards. The overall goals of resolution 30/1 must be protected and built upon to provide justice and redress to victims, guarantee the non-recurrence of past patterns of human rights violations, and promote peaceful, inclusive and sustainable development. .

The High Commissioner encourages the Government of Sri Lanka to fully implement resolution 30/1 and continue to engage positively with OHCHR and United Nations human rights mechanisms to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights as critical elements for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. She urges the Human Rights Council to sustain its close monitoring of and engagement on developments in Sri Lanka.

Introduction

1. This update is presented pursuant to Human Rights Council Resolution 40/1 on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, which was adopted by consensus and further to Human Rights Council Resolutions 30/1 and 34/1. In resolution 40/1, the Human Rights Council requested the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to continue to assess progress on the implementation of its recommendations and other relevant processes relating to reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, and to present a written update to the Human Rights Council at its forty-third session, and a comprehensive report on the implementation of resolution 30/1 at its forty-sixth session.

2. Resolution 40/1 of the Human Rights Council requested the Government of Sri Lanka to implement fully the measures foreseen in resolution 30/1 that were outstanding. The present update reviews the progress made by the Government of Sri Lanka in implementing resolution 30/1, particularly from January 2019 to January 2020. In line with past practice OHCHR invited the Government to provide information for the preparation of this update. In a Note Verbale sent on 5 February 2020, the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka informed the Office that the Government did not wish to provide information. The Government also did not provide comments on the draft report shared by the Office, and indicated it will respond to the report during its presentation at the Human Rights Council. An OHCHR delegation visited Sri Lanka in January 2020 to engage with the Government as part of the preparation of this update.

3. This update should be read in conjunction with the reports of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka of 8 February 2019 (A/HRC/40/23), 25 January 2018 (A/HRC/37/23) and 10 February 2017 (A/HRC/34/19), the oral update of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Human Rights Council of 29 June 2016 (A/HRC/32/CRP.4), the comprehensive report of OHCHR on Sri Lanka of 28 September 2015 (A/HRC/30/61) and the detailed findings of the OHCHR investigation of 2015 (A/HRC/30/CRP.2).1

4. Sri Lanka is at an important juncture following the election, on 16 November 2019, of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as the 7th Executive President of Sri Lanka. The election results, while decisive, reflected an electorate highly polarized along ethnic lines. On 21 November 2019, Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as Prime Minister and a new Cabinet was appointed. Parliamentary elections are expected in the first half of 2020. The Government has signalled its intention to review the commitments made under resolution 30/1.

5. President Rajapaksa campaigned on a manifesto that highlighted the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. In a speech to Parliament on 3 January 2020, he declared that he wanted Sri Lanka to be at the global forefront in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Government appears to prioritize development as a way to deal with the past. The 2030 Agenda includes SDG 16 to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. A commitment to human rights, justice, accountability and transparency – all of which are recognized as prerequisites for an enabling environment in which people are able to live freely, securely and prosperously – underpins the 2030 Agenda.

6. The High Commissioner therefore considers that implementation of the measures envisaged in resolution 30/1 are essential for achieving the aspiration to a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka. The resolution sets out a comprehensive roadmap to advance accountability and reconciliation, and to strengthen the protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Many of the core elements of the resolution evolved through Sri Lanka’s national process, including under the previous administrations. Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the resolution therefore represented a landmark commitment to all Sri Lankans and to the international community, and promised to underpin a peacebuilding process after three decades of devastating conflict.

7. Nearly five years after the adoption of resolution 30/1, some progress has been made but the Government has been unable to deal comprehensively with the past, risking to repeat cycle of violence and human rights violations. The High Commissioner is concerned by various signs indicating a possible reversal of past commitments by the Government which would setback the promotion of reconciliation, accountability and human rights, reduce civic space and erode important institutional safeguards in Sri Lanka. The important goals of resolution 30/1 must be protected and built upon to provide justice and redress to victims, guarantee the non-recurrence of past patterns of human rights violations, and promote peaceful, inclusive and sustainable development.

Conclusions

36. Some progress has been made by Sri Lanka in promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in line with resolution 30/1, but the inability of the Government to deal comprehensively with impunity and to reform institutions, may trigger the recurrence of human rights violations. The High Commissioner urges the full implementation of resolution 30/1, considering that the commitments under it remain essential to achieve the peaceful society and sustainable development aspired to by people from all communities in Sri Lanka. Many of the commitments in resolution 30/1 originated in Sri Lanka’s domestic process, notably the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission established by the Government during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, and elaborated further in a comprehensive civil society-led national consultation that involved all stakeholders, including the military1. The commitments in resolution 30/1 reflect the aspirations of all communities seeking to overcome the legacy of decades of armed conflict, terrorism and authoritarianism.

37. Of critical importance are Sri Lanka’s independent institutions, strengthened under the 19th Constitutional Amendment. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has continued its proactive and outspoken defence of human rights in an independent and professional manner. The High Commissioner commends its timely interventions in the aftermath of the attacks of April 2019, which played an important role in preventing resort to excessive or discriminatory measures. The Right to Information Commission established in 2016 is another key institution to guarantee citizens’ right to access information from all public authorities.

38. As noted, other institutions, can also play an important and positive role. The Office of the Missing Persons and the Office of Reparations were established to provide answers for relatives of victims from all communities in Sri Lanka to clarify the fate of the missing and disappeared persons towards redress and reparations. It is essential that their independence be scrupulously respected and that they be provided with adequate resources to effectively fulfil their mandate.

39. The space for civil society and critical and independent media, which had widened in recent years, must also be protected. The High Commissioner urges the authorities to immediately end the intimidating visits by State agents and all forms of surveillance and harassment of and reprisals against human rights defenders, social actors and victims of human rights violations and their families. The High Commissioner is also concerned by hate speech and aggressive campaigns by some militant nationalist and religious groups against ethnic, religious and other minorities, particularly Muslims, and urges the Government to take measures to actively prevent such extremism, to investigate and hold those involved in communal violence accountable, and to take measures to prevent similar incidents, notably by curbing hate speech.

40. The High Commissioner is concerned that the failure to ensure accountability for past violations and to undertake comprehensive security sector reform to dismantle the structures that facilitated them, means that the people of Sri Lanka, from all communities, have no guarantee that violations will not recur. Such failure alienates victims and their communities, instilling distrust in the State, and can potentially fuel further cycles of violence. The High Commissioner urges the Government to promptly investigate and prosecute all allegations of torture and other gross human rights violations, and to give the highest priority to ensuring accountability for long-standing emblematic cases.

41. The High Commissioner encourages the Government to urgently proceed with the review and repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and to engage with the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism2 and the United Nations, as well as with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, in finalizing a new legislation that is compliant with international human rights norms and standards.

42. The High Commissioner urges the Human Rights Council to continue to closely monitor developments in Sri Lanka and to maintain engagement with the Government to promote the full implementation of resolution 30/1. The High Commissioner hopes that the Government of Sri Lanka will safeguard and build upon the gains that have been made and continue to engage positively with OHCHR and United Nations human rights mechanisms to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights for all in Sri Lanka.

Read the full report as a PDFSri Lanka report by Rights commissioner 2020

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