Fixes are in Colombo not Geneva

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Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Friday presented a damning report on Sri Lanka’s human rights record when she addressed the 49th session of the Human Rights Council last week. The interactive dialogue based on her report is due to continue today (Monday) after being postponed due to the developing crisis in Ukraine.

The report by the High Commissioner was mandated by resolution 46/1 adopted in March 2021 which also requested her office to establish a mechanism to gather evidence on violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Sri Lanka. 

In her report she noted, “The current Government has not only demonstrated its unwillingness to pursue accountability, but it has incorporated military officials implicated in alleged war crimes into the highest levels of Government, reinforcing a narrative of impunity.” 

She also highlights the militarisation of civilian Government functions, the expression of ethno-religious nationalism in State institutions, increasing the marginalisation and fear of minority communities, and the erosion of independence of key commissions and institutions, including Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission. The lack of justice for the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks was also highlighted and the need for “a full account of the circumstances of those attacks, in particular the role of the security establishment.”

The Sri Lankan security establishment which already has a long list of allegations against it stemming from the two southern insurgencies in 1971, 1987-89 and the ethnic conflict is now being allegedly linked to the heinous Easter Sunday terrorist attack that killed over 260 civilians in April 2019. 

The crux of the argument presented by Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris in defence of this damning assessment is that resolution 46/1 was established through a flawed mechanism through a divided vote in the Council and that the High Commissioner’s report was “intolerably intrusive character, impinging as it does on core functions and responsibilities of organs of the Sri Lankan State.” 

Professor of Law Peiris should surely know that human rights law by its very nature is ‘intrusive in character’ since it is designed to protect the individual citizen against the excesses of the State. His assertion that the “council would certainly not take it upon itself to embark on a similar inquisitorial procedure in respect of other Member States” is quite extraordinary since the Council had done just that the previous day. 

While Prof. Peiris was in Geneva, on 4 March the HRC adopted a resolution by a vote of 32 in favour and two against (a divided Council as Prof. Peiris would call it), to establish an independent international commission of inquiry (CoI) to investigate all alleged violations of human rights in the context of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. This CoI was established within days of the conflict in Ukraine commencing, while the evidence gathering mechanism for Sri Lanka was established 12 long years after the end of the conflict and multiple resolutions requesting Sri Lanka to address the issue of accountability through its domestic judicial mechanisms. 

Mangala Samaraweera, the fashion designer turned foreign minister of Sri Lanka, in 2015 presented a roadmap to the HRC that promised four domestic mechanisms that were envisioned to deliver a transitional justice process. Two of these mechanisms, i.e. the Office on Mission Persons and the Office for Reparations were established amidst massive protests from the then Joint Opposition including the likes of Prof. Peiris. Due to these protests a Truth and Reconciliation Commission or an independent prosecutor’s office were never established. 

Despite these shortcomings the international community was willing to give Sri Lanka ‘time and space’ since there was an assertion that the Sri Lankan Government was genuine in its efforts towards transitional justice. That is no longer the case. The current administration has demonstrated its unwillingness to address outstanding issues on human rights. Such disingenuity is transparent and cannot be covered by eloquent speeches or protest over non-existing procedural flaws. 

What is needed is a genuine effort in Sri Lanka to address its numerous outstanding human rights issues. In this regard it is time for an emeritus professor of law to learn a few things from a dead fashion designer on how to be a positive instrument of change to advance human rights in Sri Lanka. 

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Disclaimer: Fixes are in Colombo not Geneva - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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