The UN Human Rights Chief on Friday said Sri Lanka’s progress in implementing the UN resolution of 2015 October has been “worryingly slow” and warned that the lack of a comprehensive strategy “to address accountability for past crimes risk derailing the momentum towards lasting peace, reconciliation and stability”.
Releasing a comprehensive and hard-hitting report, UN Human Rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said that the structures set up and measures taken by the government of Sri Lanka “until now have been inadequate, lacked coordination and a sense of urgency”.
“The Government has advanced on constitutional reforms and showcased some positive developments on the broader human rights agenda. The fulfilment of transitional justice commitments has, however, been worryingly slow, and the structures set up and measures taken during the period under review were inadequate to ensure real progress,” he said.
The report, which was mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to assess progress made in tackling the legacy of grave violations in Sri Lanka between 2002 and 2011, said that the party politics, including the balancing of power between the different constituencies of the coalition in the run-up to constitutional reforms, “have contributed to a reluctance to address difficult issues regarding accountability or to clearly articulate a unified position by all parts of Government”.
Maithri-Ranil party politics
Directly coming hard on President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for rejecting the spirit and provisions of the UN resolution especially on accountability issues, Prince Zaid said that their public messaging around transitional justice and reconciliation “has been generally confusing and at times contradictory”.
“Unclear and often contradictory messages have been delivered on transitional justice mechanisms by the President, the Prime Minister and various members of the Cabinet. Similar contradictions are visible in policy development,” the report said.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein noted that in many ways, Sri Lanka appears to be turning a corner on the promotion and protection of human rights, but he stressed that hard-won gains could prove illusory if they are not tethered to a comprehensive, robust strategy.
“This critical opportunity in Sri Lankan history cannot be missed. I urge the Government and people of Sri Lanka to prioritize justice alongside reconciliation to ensure that the horrors of the past are firmly dealt with, never to recur.”
International judges, lawyers, prosecutors
The report makes a number of concrete recommendations, including calling on the Government to embrace the report of the Consultation Task Force (CTF) to formulate a communications campaign to inform the public about details of the reconciliation agenda. The CTF’s report based on its island-wide consultations recommended for international judges in accountability mechanism.
Prince Zeid firmly urged Sri Lanka to invite the UN Human Rights Office to establish a presence in Sri Lanka, to give the highest priority to the restitution of all private land that has been occupied by the military, and to adopt legislation establishing a hybrid court “which should include international judges, defence lawyers, prosecutors and investigators” to investigate violations of international human rights laws and try those responsible “promptly and effectively”.
The report also highlights a number of serious human rights violations that are reportedly continuing to occur in Sri Lanka, including the harassment or surveillance of human rights defenders and victims of violations, police abuse and excessive use of force, and the use of torture.
End culture of torture, sexual violence
“The authorities at all level, from the head of State to military, police, intelligence and local-level leaders, need to publicly issue unequivocal instructions to all branches of the military, intelligence and police forces that torture, sexual violence and other human rights violations are unequivocally prohibited and will be punished,” Zeid said.
“Such violations need to be promptly investigated without fail. This is essential to regain and retain the trust of all Sri Lankans in the authorities, and to reassure them that the State exists to protect the rights of all its people.”
The UN Human Rights Chief has also once again urged the member countries to “wherever possible, in particular under universal jurisdiction, investigate and prosecute those allegedly responsible for such violations as torture, enforced disappearance, war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
He also urged them to ensure respect for the principle of “non-refoulment in the case of Tamils who have suffered torture and other human rights violations until guarantees of non-recurrence are in place to ensure that they will not be subject to further violations”.
Referring to the report of the Committee against Torture, which expressed its concern at allegations of the routine use of torture, and made recommendations on procedural changes with respect to arrests and detention (CAT/C/LKA/CO/5), Prince Zeid said that the OHCHR received “credible information from a well-known human rights organization according to which “white van” abductions and torture and sexual violence, by the Sri Lankan security forces persisted.
“These allegations must be properly investigated. OHCHR raised this matter with the authorities,” he said in an obvious reference to the report to the CAT by the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP).
The High Commissioner will present the report to the Human Rights Council on March 22 in Geneva.