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Sri Lanka has not only demonstrated its unwillingness to pursue accountability but also incorporated alleged war criminals into the highest levels – Rights Commissioner

Image: Michelle Bachelet at the 49th session of the HRC. (UN photo)

Making her opening remarks at the interactive dialogue on her report on Sri Lanka, Rights Commissioner  Michelle Bachelet said that “the current Government has not only demonstrated its unwillingness to pursue accountability – it has incorporated military officials implicated in alleged war crimes into the highest levels of Government, reinforcing a narrative of impunity. For these reasons, and to provide some form of redress for victims. I have called on the Council to pursue alternate strategies to advance accountability at the international level.”

“The mandate under the resolution 46/1 presents an important opportunity to pursue accountability for serious international crimes committed in Sri Lanka. This is a vital task: as long as impunity prevails, Sri Lanka will not achieve genuine reconciliation and sustainable peace.”

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

49th session of the Human Rights Council

4 March 2022

Distinguished President,
Excellencies,

Council Members have received our written update on Sri Lanka (A/HRC/49/9). It mainly focusses on developments since our previous report in February 2021, and demonstrates the vital need for the Council’s continuing attention.

There have been some recent signs of increased engagement by the Government with OHCHR and certain steps to initiate reforms. The proposals to amend some provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and to release some detainees under the Act, are welcome initial steps. I encourage the Government to take further steps to address the fundamental problems with the PTA, as well as undertake the deeper legal, institutional and security sector reforms that are critically needed, to put an end to impunity and prevent any recurrence of past violations.

Regrettably, the past year has also seen further obstruction and setbacks to accountability. Victims and their families continue to be denied truth and justice.  And the Government’s response to criticism has constricted democratic and civic space, including for essential human rights advocacy.

Two years after the expression of commitments to pursue an “inclusive, domestically designed and executed reconciliation and accountability process” before this Council, the Government has still not produced a credible roadmap on transitional justice towards accountability and reconciliation.

My February 2021 report identified a number of underlying trends that threaten human rights. These trends continue to advance. The militarisation of civilian government functions is further deepening. I remain deeply concerned by the concentration of civilian positions in the hands of military officials – some of them implicated in serious allegations of human rights violations.  The expression of ethno-religious nationalism in State institutions has become more visible, increasing the marginalisation and fear of minority communities, and undermining reconciliation.

Since the end of 2020, we have noted a significant increase in land disputes, mainly related to Buddhist heritage conservation or forestry protection, that are exacerbating grievances of minority communities and creating new tensions.

I regret the erosion of independence of country’s key commissions and institutions, including Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission, subsequent to passage of the 20th amendment to the Constitution. Victims’ trust in the Office of Missing Persons established to investigate the country’s tens of thousands of enforced disappearances is lacking.  The forthcoming Constitution drafting process will be an important test for the future independence of key institutions, and should emphasise devolution and human rights.

Excellences,
Two years after the expression of commitments to pursue an “inclusive, domestically designed and executed reconciliation and accountability process” before this Council, the Government has still not produced a credible roadmap on transitional justice towards accountability and reconciliation.

Victims of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings and religious leaders also continue to call for justice, reparation and a full account of the circumstances of those attacks, in particular the role of the security establishment.  

I remain concerned by  the continued suffering and anguish of victims and families of the disappeared, who call for truth and justice, and seek to commemorate their loved ones. I urge the Government to acknowledge their rights, urgently determine the fate or whereabouts of victims, bring perpetrators to justice and provide reparations.   Victims of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings and religious leaders also continue to call for justice, reparation and a full account of the circumstances of those attacks, in particular the role of the security establishment.

I am also deeply concerned by continued reports of surveillance, harassment and intimidation of civil society organisations, human rights defenders and journalists by police and intelligence services. Repeated incidents of deaths in custody and in alleged armed encounters with police are alarming. We also continue to receive allegations of ill-treatment and torture by police and military. This highlights the importance of fundamental security-sector reforms.

Mr President,

Our previous reports to the Council have detailed the failure of successive Governments of Sri Lanka to prosecute international crimes and serious human rights violations, and to pursue an effective transitional justice process.

The current Government has not only demonstrated its unwillingness to pursue accountability – it has incorporated military officials implicated in alleged war crimes into the highest levels of Government, reinforcing a narrative of impunity. For these reasons, and to provide some form of redress for victims. I have called on the Council to pursue alternate strategies to advance accountability at the international level.

Regarding our implementation of the accountability related aspects of Resolution 46/1, preparatory work is underway. Our team will analyse the information that has been consolidated in the evidence repository using a criminal justice perspective, with a view to identifying gaps and priorities for further information collection, and incorporating a victim-centred approach.

I must note the considerable scale of the work required from my Office, noting that  it will require time, adequate human and financial resources, and cooperation by States, including to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka, through judicial proceedings in their jurisdictions, under accepted principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction.

The mandate under the resolution 46/1 presents an important opportunity to pursue accountability for serious international crimes committed in Sri Lanka. This is a vital task: as long as impunity prevails, Sri Lanka will not achieve genuine reconciliation and sustainable peace.

Thank you Mr President.

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