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Saturday, July 20, 2024

Sri Lanka report of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues: Conclusions and recommendations

Image: Rita Izsak, UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues.

From the report of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues on her mission to Sri Lanka.

60. The National Unity   Government   established   in   January   2015   must   be commended for  many of its reform initiatives and positive  practices to promote  good governance and national reconciliation. However, as a consequence of the long conflict and the prevailing culture of impunity that remains unaddressed, there is a clear trust deficit  vis-à-vis  the  State  as  well  as  between  the  communities  in  Sri  Lanka.  The polarized  social  and  political  environments  and  divisions  that  cut  across  society through ethnic, religious and linguistic lines are key obstacles to the reform process as well   as   to   the   much -needed   process   of   national   reconciliation.   Adversarial ethnicization  of  politics  blocks  progress  in  achieving  the  reform  needed  for  the  full protection and promotion of minority rights.

61. The protection and  realization  of  the  rights  of  minorities  are  instrumental  not only  to  reduce  communal  tensions  but  are  essential  components  of  good  governance.

History  has  shown  that  societies  in  which  mechanisms  are  in  place  that  allow minorities  to  freely  use  their  language,  practise  their  culture  and  religion  and participate  in  political  and  economic  life on  an  equal  footing  with  the  rest  of  the population are the societies that succeed in creatinglasting peace and stability.

62. Protection and promotion of minority rights and national reconciliation are not contradictory. The Special Rapporteur firmly believes that the success of the ongoing reform and reconciliation process depends on the extent to which the Government can place a minority  rights  regime  firmly  on  its  longer-term  governance  and  transitional justice  agenda.  Particular  attention  should  be  paid  to  effective  participation  of minorities in decision-making, equality in access to economic and social opportunities and  the  constructive  development  of  practices  and  institutional  arrangements  to accommodate   ethnic,   linguistic   and   religious   diversity within   society.   Where inequalities   based   on   ethnicity   have   existed,   whether   intentionally   or   de   facto, corrective special measures must be undertaken to establish equal enjoyment of rights on the basis of accurate and disaggregated data.

63.For  the  good governance  initiative  to  succeed,  there  is  also  a  need  for  all  Sri Lankans   to   come   together   and   regenerate   trust   at   all   levels   of   society.   While addressing  the  past  and  ensuring  accountability,  a  conscious  effort  to  strengthen  the Sri  Lankan  identity  and  the  notion  of  nationhood  to  foster  a  stronger  sense  of belonging  and  togetherness  of  all  Sri  Lankans  is  critically  needed.

The  Special Rapporteur  very  much  welcomes  the  National  Policy  on  Reconciliation  (2016)  in  this regard.

64.The  constitutional  reform  and  the  transitional  justice  process  present  an unprecedented  opportunity  to  address  the  past  and  shape  a  common  vision  of  the future for Sri Lanka, and at the same time to build in a strong minority rights regime in  the  governance  structure,  putting  in  place  legal  and  institutional  guarantees  for equality and non-discrimination for all. It is important that the Government present a clear vision and road map, with timelines as necessary for the implementation of these important processes in a uniform manner.

65.Mechanisms    such    as    the    Secretariat    for    Coordinating    Reconciliation Mechanisms  and  the  Office  for  National  Unity  and  Reconciliation  will  undoubtedly play  an  important  role  in  moving  the  country  forward  along  with  other  existing independent   commissions.   The   Special   Rapporteur   particularly   welcomes   the enhanced  independence  of  the  National  Human  Rights  Commission.  She  urges  the Government  at  all  levels  to  extend  full  institutional  cooperation  to  these  institutions and mechanisms, ensuring that sufficient human and financial resources are provided for  the  full  implementation  of  their  mandates.  Recruitment  of  staff  from  diverse ethnic  and  religious  communities  should  continue  to  be  encouraged.  The  Office  of Missing Persons should be established swiftly and transparently.

Minorities commission

66.The  Special  Rapporteur  also  recommends  that  the  Government  establish  an independent   commission   on   minorities   under   the   Constitution.   The   commission should  have  a  clear   mandate,  powers,  resources  and  autonomy,  and  a   diverse workforce that includes representatives of minority communities.  Its mandate should enable  it  to  provide  expert advice  in  legislative  drafting  and  policymaking  processes; advise   and   formulate   necessary   legislative   changes   as   well   as   implementation measures;  have  an  interministerial  coordination  role  in  recognition  of  the  need  to mainstream   minority   issues   across   policy   areas;   undertake   promotional   and educational   activities;   develop   good   practice   guides,   information   resources   and reports;  develop  campaigns  and  outreach  relating  to  minority  rights;  conduct  needs assessments to identify the needs of minority communities, monitor their situation and serve  as a bridge  and trust-building platform between minority communities and the Government;  and  facilitate  arbitration,  dialogue,  national  debate  and  activities  to prevent and find solutions to ethnic-or religion-based tensions.

Political participation and inclusive governance

67.The   overwhelming   sense   of   marginalization   felt   by   minorities   must   be addressed   by   taking   immediate   measures   to   ensure   their   participation   and representation  in  public  life,  particularly  in  shaping  decisions  that  affect  them.

Effective and meaningful participation of all groups in the political arena confers trust and  legitimacy  in  governance  and  can  be  a  pivotal  element  in  reducing  community tensions  and  segregation.  While  there  are  a  number  of  ways  in  which  political participation of minorities can be achieved, including the devolution of certain powers by  means  of  a  federal  arrangement,  a  system  of  reserved  seats  in  Parliament  and facilitated  participation  in  the  electoral  process  of  political  parties  representing  the interests  of  minorities,  it  will  be  important  for  any  future  electoral  reform  to  ensure proportional  representation  for  all  minority  groups  on  the  basis  of  accurate  data collection   and   disaggregation.   The   modality   for   political   inclusion   must   afford minorities  genuine  influence  and  not  simply tokenism,  which  may  lead  to  deeper frustrations.

68. The Special Rapporteur  also  urges  the  Government  to  consider  measures aimed at ensuring that government and provincial offices, law enforcement bodies, the armed forces and education and health institutions are truly reflective of the diversity within  Sri  Lankan  society  by  including  members  of  ethnic,  linguistic  and  religious minorities   at   all   levels,   with   particular   attention   to   those   facing   multiple   and intersecting forms of discrimination such as women and lower caste groups. This may be achieved through  mandatory quota systems, especially at the federal level, as well as  targeted  affirmative  action  in  training  and  recruitment  programmes.  Separate departments  within  institutions  established  for  and  composed  of  minorities  may  also be a possibility.

69.The Special Rapporteur proposes that the Government, as a first step towards systematic  and  institutionalized  inclusion,  consider  establishing  a  system  of  bilingual community   liaison   officers,   to   be   placedin   every   public   institution,   including provincial administrations, police forces, education and health facilities and the armed forces,  among  others,  to  help  overcome  language  barriers  and  to  form  a  bridge between  their  respective  communities  and  State  institutions.  The  inclusion  of  women community liaison officers of Tamil and Muslim background in the police force in the Northern  and  Eastern  Provinces,  for  example,  would  bring  immediate  benefits  when handling sensitive cases such as sexual and domestic violence. Such a system should be provided with the necessary resources required to fulfil the mandate.

70.The  Government  must  be  commended  for  initiating  the  constitutional  reform and  the  reconciliation  process  with  a  participatory  approach,  engaging  the civil society, including minority communities, through public consultations. It is important that  consultations  be  institutionalized  at  every  stage  of  these  key  processes  while keeping  the  communication  channel  open  at  all  times.  The  public  must  be  regularly and   systematically   informed   of   the   status,   the   timelines   and   the   outcomes   as appropriate.  The  Public  Representations  Committee  on  Constitutional  Reform,  the Consultation  Task  Force  on  Reconciliation  Mechanismsand  the  National  Human Rights  Commission  have  drawn  staff  from  diverse  ethnic  and  religious  groups, including  women;  this  serves  as  a  good  practice  for  other  offices.  It  will  be  essential that  every  decision-making  process  and  mechanism  inspire  the  confidence  of  all communities that their views andaspirations are included and that a sense of national ownership  over  the  long-awaited  process  of  truth-seeking,  reconciliation  and  healing is being forged.

Incitement to violence and freedom of religion or belief

71.The Special Rapporteur urges the strict application of the existing legislation to bring to justice perpetrators of hate speech aiming to incite discrimination or violence as well as hate crimes. Ending impunity for those who incite ethnic or religious hatred and  violence  must  be  a  priority.  The  newly  established  Inter-Religious  Council constitutes a positive practice and its role in mediating between different religious and belief   communities   and   promoting   tolerance   and   peaceful   relations   should   be strengthened,  particularly  at  the  provincial  level.  The  Government,  including  at  the local level, should also ensure full protection of all minority places of worship as well as heritage.

Linguistic rights

72. Sri Lanka has put in place an important legal and policy framework necessary for multilingualism. However, targeted  and  strengthened  measures  are  necessary  to enable  their  actual  implementation,  with  sufficient  resources.  The  placement  of bilingual  community  liaison  officers  in  every  public  institution,  as  recommended above,  should  facilitate  overcoming  the  practical  difficulties  experienced  by  Tamil speakers in accessing public services as well as dealing with law enforcement and the courts.  The  Government  should  take  the  necessary  measures  to  guarantee  a  quality education  in  all  three  languages  by,  inter  alia,  addressing  the  shortage  of  Tamil-speaking teachers.


73. Entrenched segregation in   the   education   system   reinforces   the   notion   of differences and prevents children from fostering friendships across different identities. Recognizing  the  role  of  education  as  the  foundation  of  unity,  understanding  and acceptance  of  differences  that  will  pave  the  way  for  peaceful  coexistence,  the  Special Rapporteur  believes  that  the  reform  of  the  education  system  is  an  important  long-term  project  that  must  be  set  in  motion  without  delay.  Steps  to  achieve  integration within  the  school  system  should  be  based  upon  dialogue  and  confidence-building across communities. Moreover, the school curriculum should be reviewed with a view to  ensuring  that  children  learn  about  the  shared  values  and  commonalities  of  their society,  together  with  the  history,  culture,  religion  and  identity  of  the  thers  and  not only of their own or the majority communities. Religion classes should cover all religions,  and  could  be  optional.Such  measures  will  help  minimize  stereotypes, prejudices and suspicions with which the different communities might currently view each  other.  Other  suggestions  made  to  the  Special  Rapporteur  included  religion-or ethnic-neutral  names  for  schools  and  the  use  of  English  as  a  language  of  instruction with  optional  afternoon  classes  in  Tamil,  Sinhala  and  other  desired  languages, depending on the composition of the student body.

Targeted actions needed for Sri Lankan minorities

74.To   achieve   peaceful   coexistence   after   the   long,   devastating   civil   war,   a comprehensive,  well-planned  and  well-coordinated  truth,  reconciliation,  healing  and accountability  process  must  take  place,  and  it  cannot  be  done  overnight.  However, almost two  years  after  the  change  of  Government,  the  Special  Rapporteur  notes  the mounting  frustrations  with  the  pace  of  progress.  It is  important  for  the  Government to   put   in   place   some   immediate,   important   and   concrete   measures   to   clearly demonstrate   its   political   will   and   commitment to   better   protect   the   country ’s minorities.

75.The  specific  policy  interventions  to  address  the  needs  of  different  minority groups should be based on accurate data that are disaggregated by, inter alia, gender, ethnicity,  language  and  religious  affiliation.  Such  data  are  crucial  to  highlight  the vulnerability  of  the  different  population  groups,  including  those  that  face  multiple forms of discrimination, and enable legislators and policymakers to establish targeted programmes. Census questions should allow open and multiple responses that enable respondents to self-identify according to their national, ethnic, religious and linguistic affiliation, including multiple identities.

76. As a matter of priority, the Government must continue and step up the release to the civilian  populations  of  the  remaining  6,124 acres of  the  land  currently  held  by the  military  in  the  North  as  well  as  other  lands  and  coastal  areas  occupied  by  the military.  A  proper  mapping  exercise  of  all  the  lands  currently  occupied  by  the military  must  take  place,  and  lands  currently  not  in  use  or  whose  use  cannot  be adequately  justified  for  military  purposes  must  be  returned  without  delay  to  their rightful owners in a condition that is usable. Where private lands have been acquired without   due   process   or   compensation,   these   lands   must   be   returned   and/or compensated for.  Demilitarization  of  the  North  and  East  is  not  only  urgent  for  its practical  implications  such  as  the  livelihood  of  the  local  population,  but  required  for symbolic  purposes.  With police powers having been transferred back from the army to civilian control, it will be important for the police to reflect the ethnic and linguistic composition of the local population to overcome practical barriers and rebuild trust.

77.While  the  country  is  undergoing  an  important  reconciliation  process,  with constitutional  reform  and transitional  justice  and  policymaking,  the  devastating impact  of  the  war  and  violence  on  psychological  well-being  cannot  continue  to  be ignored.  Past  acts  of  repression of  culture  and  expression,  ethnic  intolerance  and discrimination, as well as the crimes and violations committed during the conflict and the prevailing impunity, have severely damaged social and cultural norms and feelings of  identity,  belonging  and  trust.  Therefore,  the  Government  should  also  consider supporting  psychosocial  programmes  and  counselling  and  support  interventions  to help  victims,  especially  women,  overcome  the  trauma,  which  often  manifests  in complex and intertwined physical, emotional and mental health complications.

78. Intensified efforts by national authorities and the international community are required to facilitate the voluntary return of the displaced, including those evicted by LTTE in 1990,   and   to   ensure   the   improvement   and   sustainability   of   returnee communities.  The  outstanding  recommendations  of  the  Special  Rapporteur  on  the human  rights  of  internally  displaced  persons  following  his  visit  to  Sri  Lanka  in December  2013  (see  A/HRC/26/33/Add.2,  para.  56) should be  implemented  without further delay.

79.In  the  light  of  the  Government’s  commitment  to  repeal  the  Prevention  of Terrorism  Act,  the  Special  Rapporteur  recommends  its  immediate  repeal,  ensuring that  any  new  antiterrorism  legislation  that  replaces  the  Act   meets  all  relevant international  standards.  The  cases  of  all  security-related  detainees  should  also  be reviewed  immediately  with  a  view  to  their  swift  release  if  there  are  no  elements  that would  merit  a  prosecution;  alternatively,  those  against  whom  there  is  evidence  of involvement in serious crimes should be charged.

80.Minority  women  and  children  are  particularly  vulnerable  to  the  effects  of discrimination,  social  exclusion  and  poverty  and  their  situation  merits  particular, focused attention. The Government should undertake research and formulate specific, targeted programme responses  as  appropriate.  Targeted  psychosocial  and  livelihood assistance  for  women  in  the  war-affected  areas,  particularly  the  female  heads  of household and former combatants, need to be strengthened.

It is equally important to ensure  that  women’s  voices  are  systematically  heard  and  reflected  in  the  transitional justice process. The amended Local Government Election Act and its quota of 25 per cent  of  places  to  be  given  to  women  should  also  consider  the  inclusion  of  minority women.

81.The Special Rapporteur recommends a review of all personal laws of minority communities   (such   as   Kandyan,   Tesawalamai   or   Muslim   law)   in   line   with international  human  rights  standards,  especially  the  1951  Muslim  Marriage  and Divorce   Act.   Such   reviews   should   be   conducted   in   full   consultation   with   the community concerned, including women’s groups. The supremacy of the Constitution must  be  guaranteed  so  that  all  fundamental  rights  provided  for  in  the  Constitution can be guaranteed for all without discrimination.

82.It will be crucial for the new plan of action for the Plantation community to be implemented  with  sufficient  resources  and  with  the  participation  of  the  community. The current progress of construction of houses must be continued to achieve the goal of 50,000 houses in the next five years. The Government’s commitment to provide title deeds  for  ownership  of  7  perches  of  land  per  household  will  also  require  estate management cooperation in finding and allocating suitable lands. With respect to the estates  that  are  privately  owned,  the  Special  Rapporteur,  recalling  the  Guiding Principles  on  Business  and  Human  Rights,  underscores  the  responsibility  of  private companies to respect human rights, which is complementary to the responsibilities of the Government.

83.The   Special   Rapporteur   draws   the   attention   of   the   Government   to   the recommendations  contained  in  her  report  on  minorities  and  discrimination  based  on caste  and  analogous  systems  of  inherited  status  (A/HRC/31/56)  and urges  their implementation as appropriate.

84. There is a lack of detailed information available regarding the overall situation of the smaller   minorities.   To   fully   understand   their   problems   and   respond appropriately,  it  is  necessary  for  the  Government  to undertake  further  research  of both  a  quantitative  and  qualitative  nature  for  appropriate  policy  planning.  The representatives of smaller minority groups should participate in a meaningful way in all  stages  of  policy  formulation,  programme  design  and  implementation  of  decisions that affect them.

Read the full report as a PDF the report of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues on her mission to Sri Lanka. or online here


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