(20 March 2019.)The Human Rights Council this morning held an interactive dialogue on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka.
The Council has before it Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka – Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (A/HRC/40/23)
Presentation of Report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka
MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, acknowledged the open dialogue and sustained cooperation of the Government of Sri Lanka with her Office. Working closely with the United Nations Resident Coordinator and her Senior Human Rights Advisor, the Office had continued to provide technical support, including through the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund for Sri Lanka. The High Commissioner welcomed the operationalization of the Office of Missing Persons, following initial delays. The Office of Missing Persons planned to undertake the complex task of tracing the whereabouts of victims in a sensitive, thorough and objective manner, addressing the difficult situation of victims’ families. She also commended the establishment of the Office for Reparations, and looked forward to the swift appointment of its commissioners. The High Commissioner encouraged the Government to enable those two institutions to function effectively and independently, and to link them to a broader approach aimed at justice, real accountability and truth-seeking. Regarding the land occupied by the military in the northern and eastern provinces, some progress had been noted and further steps should be taken to complete that crucial process.
However, the implementation of resolution 30/1 needed to be more consistent, comprehensive and accelerated, Ms. Bachelet noted. A contributing factor to delays appeared to be a lack of common vision among the country’s highest leadership. Deadlock on those important issues was an additional and avoidable problem, with damaging impact currently on victims from all ethnic and religious groups and on society as a whole. The High Commissioner appreciated the complexity of transitional processes. The events leading to the declaration of a state of emergency in March 2018, and the constitutional crisis in October 2018, had created a political environment not conducive to the implementation of reform measures. The High Commissioner’s Office encouraged the Government of Sri Lanka to implement a detailed and comprehensive strategy for the transitional process with a fixed timeline. Legislation on the establishment of an independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission could be an important next step. Ms. Bachelet highlighted the importance of the security sector reform as part of a transitional justice process. Those reforms should include a vetting process to remove officers with questionable human rights record. There had been minimal progress on accountability, and lack of progress in setting up a special judicial mechanism to deal with the worst crimes committed during the 2009 conflict.
Continuing impunity risked fuelling communal and inter-ethnic violence and instability. Resolving those cases and bringing more perpetrators of past crimes to justice was necessary to restore the confidence of victims from all communities. The replacement of the Prevention of Terrorism Act had been on the Government’s agenda for four years. Ms. Bachelet encouraged the completion of that process, with measures to strengthen the draft law’s safeguards and oversight elements, and to tighten the definition of terrorist acts, which was currently too broad. She was also troubled about continuing allegations of torture and other human rights violations by security forces, including sexual violence. Effective, transparent and independent investigations by the Government would be positive. Another step in the right direction would be an end to the surveillance of human rights defenders, reprisals against them, as well as against victims. The High Commissioner highlighted the role of Sri Lanka’s independent commissions in entrenching the rule of law in the country. She emphasized that in co-sponsoring resolutions 30/1 and 34/1, the Government had recognized the need to address the past in order to build a future securely grounded in accountability, respect for human rights, and the rule of law.
Statement by the Concerned Country
TILAK MARAPANA, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, speaking as the concerned country, said that the Office on Missing Persons was fully operationalized to improve truth seeking. The replacement of the Prevention of Terrorism Act with the new counter-terrorism legislation would ensure conformity with international standards. The Office of Reparations had been established and Rs 500 million was allocated to pay monthly allowances to the families of disappeared persons who had a certificate of absence. Over 88 per cent of State land and 92 per cent of private lands had been released by security forces, not 75 per cent as contained in the report. The test results on the skeletons found in the “mass graves” in Mannar confirmed that they dated back to 1499-1719 and were not current, the assumptions contained in the report that more mass graves may be found in the future would not be accepted. It was not possible to include non-citizens in its judicial processes, this precluded it from establishing a hybrid court. The actions of the security forces were against a designated terrorist organization and not against a community and there were no proven allegations against individuals on war crimes or crimes against humanity. Sri Lanka should be encouraged and assisted in finding innovative and viable local mechanisms to incorporate best practices.
Interactive Dialogue on Sri Lanka
European Union said that in 2015, by co-sponsoring the Council’s resolution 30/1, the Sri Lankan Government had recognized the need to address the past in order to build a better future. The Government was urged to institute a durable reconciliation process, complete the return of occupied land, and advance transitional justice. Pakistan welcomed the establishment of the Office of Missing Persons. The return of 92 per cent of private land was also welcomed and efforts in combatting cross-border terrorism were acknowledged. Denmark urged the Government to prepare a transparent strategy to prepare a transitional justice mechanism with a time bound plan and institutional reforms in the military and police. The High Commissioner was asked to elaborate how to strengthen support for victims of human rights violations, including women and children?
India had always supported efforts to preserve Sri Lanka’s character as a multi-ethnic society, including the Tamil community. India acknowledged that 75 per cent of the land held in 2009 by the security forces had been returned to the original and rightful owners. United Kingdom continued to urge the Government to take steps required to fully deliver on its commitments in resolutions 30/1 and 34/1 and to establish the full range of transitional justice mechanisms. What were the priorities for the United Nations assistance to Sri Lanka? Belgium commended the Government for its ongoing constructive engagement with the Office of the High Commissioner but regretted the further delay of the implementation of the Council’s recommendations. What impact would a possible re-application of the death penalty have on the transitional justice process in Sri Lanka?
North Macedonia welcomed the report, and recognized progress on advancing reconciliation in the country. However, in order for this progress to be sustained, they encouraged Sri Lanka to prepare a comprehensive strategy on transitional justice with a clear time frame. Germany encouraged Sri Lanka in its pursuit of transitional justice, by further establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and implementing long promised constitutional and justice reforms. Switzerland was alarmed at the considerable lack of progress in investigating abuses of human rights and violations of international law in Sri Lanka. Switzerland welcomed the decision of Sri Lanka to co-sponsor resolution 34/1 and urged them to implement it fully.
Iceland noted with concern the lack of progress in prosecuting human rights abuses perpetrated during the civil war, and called on Sri Lanka to establish a transitional justice agenda. They asked the High Commissioner how the specific needs of women and children could be taken into account in developing a reparations plan. Norway recognized the role played by democratic institutions in the peaceful resolution of the political situation from October to December 2018. However, progress on transitional justice had slowed, and Norway urged Sri Lanka to continue to address serious human rights violations that occurred during the conflict. Ireland welcomed Sri Lanka’s commitment to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights under the terms of resolution 30/1. However, Ireland was concerned about proposals for a counter terrorism law that included the possibility of the death penalty as a punishment, and called on Sri Lanka to uphold the moratorium on such punishments.
China commended Sri Lanka for the results achieved in the domains of human rights, the elimination of poverty, and the rights of children, women and vulnerable groups. China had provided technical assistance and capacity building and hoped that the Government would maintain political stability and unity of the country. Montenegro said it was important that the forthcoming elections did not slow down the implementation of the Government’s obligations. Sri Lanka needed to advance reconciliation by addressing the issue of accountability based on truth, justice and ensuring reparations for victims in an effective way and with concrete results. Canada called on Sri Lanka to end impunity by enacting legislation that criminalized violations of international law without statutes of limitation and to establish a special court to prosecute violations of international law with the involvement of international investigators, prosecutors and judges. It asked what support the Council and Member States could provide to ensure progress towards accountability in Sri Lanka.
Croatia called upon the Sri Lankan Government to allow the independent operation of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms, and the Human Rights Commission so as to end impunity for crimes committed. Austria said that the Government’s inconsistent commitment to transitional justice had caused considerable delay and newly created human rights institutions had not been sufficiently supported by political leadership nor linked to accountability and truth seeking. It called on the Government to prepare a comprehensive strategy on transitional justice to honour its commitments. Liechtenstein recognized some important advances since 2015 but was concerned about the slow progress in establishing meaningful transitional justice mechanisms which had engendered further mistrust among victims and other stakeholders. It asked how the international community could support the Government in its efforts to engage in its transitional process and whether an expansion of the presence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the country would be an option.
Australia welcomed Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of resolution 40/1 as a positive demonstration of its commitment and encouraged it to deliver its transitional justice agenda in a timely and effective way. It recognized that more needed to be done to promote truth-seeking, accountability, justice and reconciliation.
Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, in a video statement, noted that strengthening independent commissions was a critical priority to consolidate democratic gains based on the past three years. The Commission had entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Office of Missing Persons to streamline collaboration between the institutions International Movement against all Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) noted that Sri Lanka had failed to address human rights violations and institutionalized violence. The Council had to renew the mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner to monitor and report on the implementation of resolution 30/1 at least every six months. Association Bharathi Centre Culturel Franco-Tamoul said that Sri Lanka’s topmost leaders had consistently rejected criminal accountability. The only possibility of Tamil victims seeing criminal justice was if Sri Lanka was referred to the International Criminal Court, or if an ad hoc criminal tribunal was set up. World Evangelical Alliance, in a joint statement with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, shared deep concern at the aggravation of intercommunal tensions and discrimination against Christian, Muslim and Hindu minorities. There was a Circular in place requesting all future constructions of any place of worship to be subject to prior permission of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Moral Upliftment and it should be withdrawn.
Amnesty International was concerned that the Government had made slow progress in ensuring justice, truth, reparation and non-recurrence. The Council was urged to maintain scrutiny of Sri Lanka’s efforts and continue the High Commissioner’s reporting on Sri Lanka’s commitments in resolution 30/1. Human Rights Watch noted that thus far only the Office of Missing Persons had been set up and there had been no discernible progress on establishing an accountability mechanism involving international judges, prosecutors and investigators. Instead, Sri Lankan leaders repeatedly said there would be no foreign judges and “war heroes” would be protected from prosecution.
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development noted that without a credible judicial mechanism to get accountability for crimes committed, any plans for judicial reform would ring hollow. The Council must have a field presence, and a Special Rapporteur for Sri Lanka to gather evidence and ensure that justice was served. Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada noted that 4 years after the adoption of resolution 30/1, there been very little progress in investigating crimes committed during the conflict. Without significant international involvement, there could be no credible recourse to justice, given the politicization of the domestic judicial system. International Commission of Jurists was particularly concerned about the lack of progress in the area of criminal accountability, and called for the urgent creation of an international legal mechanism with international judges. They noted that women were grossly underrepresented in the justice system, which prevented women victims from having confidence in the effectiveness of that system.
Concluding Remarks on Sri Lanka
MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her concluding remarks, outlined some ways for the international community to support Sri Lanka in adhering to the resolution and meeting its human rights obligations. Slow progress had been made, particularly in terms of accountability, and the Government needed support in following the road map outlined by the resolution. The Office of Missing Persons and transitional justice mechanisms would need support to establish accountability. She encouraged the Government to establish a strategy on transitional justice that was time bound, so as to build trust between the various stakeholders. There was a lack of victim and witness safeguards, but the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights would continue to support the existing institutions to support these in collaboration with civil society and non-governmental organizations. The Council needed to maintain close attention to the situation in Sri Lanka and provide technical assistance to ensure progress to accountability. She had requested that the Government allow the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish a permanent office in Sri Lanka. Should the delays continue and in the absence of progress, Member States should consider using international mechanisms to bring about justice, such as the International Criminal Court or sanctions.