By S. V. Kirubaharan, France
The 53rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council – UN HRC started on the 19th June and continues until 14th July 2023. It is meeting under the Presidency of Mr. Vaclav Balek, the UN representative of the Czech Republic.
In brief, the HRC’s main concern is accountability issues in the member states. In other words, human rights violations, war crimes, and the beginnings of ethnic cleansing are scrutinised through this council. The reality is that many different committees, working groups and experts on human rights, work under the HRC to examine the situation in member countries.
On this basis, eight resolutions have been passed by the HRC on Sri Lanka.
(UN Human Rights Council resolutions on Sri Lanka – 19/2, 22 March 2012; 22/1, 21 March 2013; 25/1, 27 March 2014; 30/1, 1 October 2015; 34/1, 23 March 2017 ; 40/1, 21 March 2019; 46/1, 23 March 2021; 51/1, 12 October 2022. We should also remember the resolution s11/1, 27 May 2009).
The agenda of the 53rd session states two important issues to be discussed on Sri Lanka. One is the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – HCHR with regard to HRC resolution 51/1 on Sri Lanka. The other one is about the Universal Periodic Review – UPR which will be discussed on 6th July.
HCHR and duplicity of Sri Lanka
The High Commissioner for Human Rights – HCHR, Mr. Volker Turk addressed the council on June 19th and spoke about the situation in Sri Lanka. He said: “InSri Lanka, although the Government has regrettably rejected aspects of the Council’s resolutions related to accountability, it has continued to engage with our presence on the ground. Sri Lanka has received a dozen visits by mandate-holders in the past decade, and I encourage the authorities to implement their recommendations.”
Following the HCHR’s speech, the representative of Sri Lanka expressed their views. In brief: “We note the High Commissioner´s acknowledgement of Sri Lanka’s continued engagement including with the special procedures during the presentation of his Report.We have repeatedly mentioned in the Council the reasons for our categoric rejection of resolutions 46/1 and 51/1, that set up the external evidence gathering mechanism”.
Sri Lanka’s double standards must be noted, especially since a President who sponsored the HRC resolutions in 2015 and 2017 categorically rejects all subsequent resolutions based on them.
At least now, the international community and also India realises how smartly Sri Lanka moves in the international arenas!
The Sri Lankan representative continued her speech, saying that: “In the meantime, work related to truth and reconciliation continues to progress in the country with the assistance of bilateral partners.The Government also continues its support to the domestic institutions on missing persons, reparations and national reconciliation and unity to carry on their work steadily.Consultations continue on the draft Anti Terrorism Bill to ensure its compliance with international standards while catering to domestic needs.Sri Lanka will continue to engage constructively in those aspects of the Council’s work that have been productive and beneficial to our people.”Core Group on Sri Lanka
At the same time, the Core Group of Sri Lanka in the HRC, which includes the United States, Britain, Canada, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Malawi, has said the following: “We welcome Sri Lanka’s initial steps towards addressing concerns around land returns, long-term detentions and corruption.These steps can provide a basis to begin a process to protect the rights of all Sri Lankans, from all ethnic and religious communities. We remain concerned by the continued use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. We acknowledge an ongoing effort to replace the PTA and urge the Government to ensure that terrorism legislation is consistent with Sri Lanka’s international obligations.We also call on the government to protect freedoms of expression and association. As Sri Lanka takes forward its stated commitment to reconciliation, we stress the importance of transparency, accountability, inclusivity, and of building meaningfully on past work and recommendations that address the root causes of conflicts and impunity.It is crucial that Sri Lanka safeguards its representative democracy by maintaining voters’ confidence in the country’s electoral systems and ensuring the independence of its institutions and commissions. We call onSri Lanka to work with the HCHR and his office and we remain ready to support Sri Lanka in addressing HRC resolution 51/1”.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International said on 20th Tuesday that, “In Sri Lanka, state response to the right to peaceful assembly, as well as to truth, justice and accountability continues to be concerning. The government’s new Anti-Terrorism bill doesn’t meet international human rights standards, and the renewed use of the domestic ICCPR Act curtailing the right to expression is deeply worrying”.Oral report on Sri Lanka
On Wednesday, the 21st, the UN Deputy HCHR Ms. Nada Al Najeeb delivered the report of the HCHR on Sri Lanka. She stated: “The oral update, which I am honoured to present today, highlights some key developments and trends from our close monitoring of the situation in Sri Lanka, ahead of the full written update that will be presented to the Council at its 54th session.It is also vital to address the underlying factors of the crisis, including corruption, an essential demand of the protests in 2022.Twelve months on, the full potential for the historic transformation that would address long-standing challenges has yet to be realized. Our Office urges the Government and political parties in Sri Lanka to use this opportunity for democratic renewal, deeper institutional reforms and to advance accountability and reconciliation as well as the promotion and protection of human rights.We encourage the dialogue that President Wickremesinghe has initiated with Tamil political parties and welcome his promise to stop land acquisition for archaeological, forestry or security purposes – an increasing source of local conflicts and tension.However, these intentions now need to materialize into new laws, policies and practices that will indeed bring about tangible changes.The announcement of plans for a Truth Commission or similar reconciliation mechanisms requires attention, as Sri Lanka has witnessed too many ad hoc commissions in the past that failed to ensure accountability.The Office of Missing Persons has not achieved the results that provide satisfaction to victims. What is needed is a coherent plan that connects the different elements of truth, redress, memorialisation, accountability and creates the right enabling environment for a successful transitional justice process.Accountability remains the fundamental gap in attempts to deal with the past. As long as impunity prevails, Sri Lanka will achieve neither genuine reconciliation nor sustainable peace.I am pleased to report that the project team established in our Office to advance accountability has continued to make progress pursuant to resolution 51/1. It is in the process of providing concrete support to several jurisdictions that have ongoing criminal justice investigations.It is conducting proactive investigative work on key cases and collecting, consolidating and analysing information and evidence from a variety of UN and other sources, which is preserved in a repository so as to be used for future accountability initiatives. Victims continue to be placed at the heart of this work, including through our active engagement with victim organisations and civil society more broadly.Fundamentally, it is and remains the responsibility of the Sri Lankan authorities to directly acknowledge past violations and undertake credible investigations and prosecutions, alongside other accountability measures. However, as long as an “accountability deficit” remains, the international community can – and should – play complementary roles. Means to do so include use of accepted principles of universal and extraterritorial jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators, and support to the relevant accountability processes in third States, as well as fair application of targeted sanctions against credibly alleged perpetrators.Human Rights CommitteeRecent arrests over statements made during comedy performances and of members of parliament engaged in protests exemplified this concern. In March 2023, the Human Rights Committee expressed deep concern about the misuse of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act against journalists, human rights defenders and other civil society actors.The Government has committed to replacing the Prevention of Terrorism Act with legislation that adheres to international standards, but the new “Anti-terrorism” Bill gazetted in March contained sweeping provisions that would limit freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and even labour rights.The Office stands ready to provide support to the Government and people of Sri Lanka in order to advance reconciliation, accountability and human rights for all”.
As a concerned country, the representative of Sri Lanka immediately responded to the Deputy Commissioner’s report on Sri Lanka. The summary is as follows:–
“In parallel and despite ongoing fiscal challenges, the Government is continuing its focus on the long-term measures towards reconciliation and accountability within the framework of the Constitution.Sri Lanka has always remained open for dialogue and constructive engagement with its international partners on human rights and reconciliation. The Government is determined to safeguard peace and harmony amongst all communities and enforce the rule of law, while respecting the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Constitution, and in keeping with our international obligations. South Africa is in the propagandaIn March this year, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Justice undertook a working visit to South Africa, for a preliminary study of their experience on truth and reconciliation. The concept of a mechanism that would suit Sri Lanka, has received Cabinet approval and an advisory committee has been appointed to hold discussions with all stakeholders and facilitate drafting of the required legislation. As of May 2023, the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) has concluded preliminary inquiries on 3170 complaints as part of its verification process leading to in-depth investigations. As of June 2023, 1,283 families have been assisted in getting Certificates of Absence (CoA) while the validity of their provisions was extended by another two years from 2021 to 2023”.
It is to be noted that the conflict in South Africa was not the same as what is happening, and what has happened, in Sri Lanka. The South African conflict was based on minority rule against the majority. The Sri Lanka problem is between two nations who experienced different kingdoms in the island. In other words the aggressive rule by the numerically larger nation is based on ethnic cleansing, land grab, religious domination, etc of the other nation. Sri Lanka highlights the South African experience for propaganda, without learning from the South African process of taking seriously the voice of the victims.
“By the beginning of this year, 92% of the private lands in the Northern and Eastern Provinces that had been retained by the military had been released to the legitimate civilian owners. An additional 100 acres in Palaly in the Northern Province were released on 3rd February.Further, the Government has continued with the resettlement process and has established a special unit under the Presidential Secretariat with the objective of resolving the prolonged issues of the people of the Northern and Eastern Provinces and restore the normalcy with improved living conditions of the remaining IDPs who are at welfare centres.Sri Lanka has reiterated its categoric rejection of the external evidence gathering mechanism established following Resolution 46/1, which will have wide-ranging legal and political implications for all countries.Let me conclude by reiterating Sri Lanka’s continued cooperation and constructive engagement with this Council and the United Nations, in keeping with our Constitution and our international obligations voluntarily undertaken”.UPR
The fourth cycle of the UPR regarding Sri Lanka was discussed in the 42nd session of the UPR held in Geneva on February 1, 2023. The report will be presented in the 53rd session on 6th of July. Britain, Algeria and Qatar acted as the ‘Troika’.
This report A/HRC/53/16, consists of 24 pages. It includes statements and proposals submitted by one hundred and six (106) countries. There are about two hundred and ninety four (294) different opinions stated on Sri Lanka.
If 106 out of 193 UN member countries made remarks, this shows where Sri Lanka stands on its promises and lack of progress on Human Rights.
Of course some countries which babysit Sri Lanka made some positive remarks. The following are some of the important remarks:
Luxembourg, Austria, Botswana, Ecuador, Estonia, East-Timor and a few other countries requested Sri Lanka to sign and ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Also Colombia requested Sri Lanka to accede to the additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions.
While Switzerland insisted on pursuing efforts for the decentralization of power, India spoke about policy measures to strengthen the Sri Lankan economy and combat poverty and its impact on the vulnerable segments of the population, including Indian-origin Tamils; and measures to ensure that the fundamental freedoms and human rights of all its citizens, in particular all Tamil-speaking citizens, are fully protected.
New Zealand, East-Timor and France wanted Sri Lanka to establish a moratorium on the use of, with a view to abolishing, the death penalty. France also wanted full leverage of the assistance provided by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to support the national reconciliation process.
Australia, Austria, Belgium and Canada wanted Sri Lanka to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act and ensure that any replacement legislation conforms to the best practices of international human rights standards. Also Austria wanted Sri Lanka to review its counter-terrorism legislation, in particular the Prevention of Terrorism Act, to bring it into line with international human rights standards and release those detained under the Act.
United States wanted Sri Lanka to end impunity for human rights violations, abuses and harassment, especially against members of ethnic and religious minority communities, by holding those responsible to account, including security forces and government officials, and implementing commitments under HRC resolutions.
Germany requested Sri Lanka to refrain from imposing undue limitation on non-governmental organizations and ensure that the planned non-governmental organization law is in line with international obligations.
In the meantime Netherlands urged Sri Lanka to ensure that the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly are guaranteed and that everyone, including journalists and human rights defenders, are allowed to express their opinion without fear of repercussion, through the disproportionate use of legal instruments or repressive actions.
The United Kingdom addressed concerns around land expropriation in the north and east by government departments, including the archaeological department, and related restrictions on access to land.
Paraguay wanted Sri Lanka to establish a permanent national mechanism for implementation, reporting and follow-up, regarding human rights recommendations, considering the possibility of receiving cooperation for this purpose. Also to take administrative, legislative and other measures to guarantee Indigenous Peoples their fundamental rights, including the recognition of their legal status, access to land, linguistic identity, access to health, education and other fundamental rights.
Some countries and representatives of NGOs will make their interventions regarding this report following its presentation to the HRC on 6th July.
If one analyses the 53rd session of the HRC, it is obvious that Sri Lanka is being heavily scrutinised and seriously warned by the World’s Highest Authorities on Human Rights – the HCHR and the HRC.