Unending wrangling between the UNHRC and Sri Lanka

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Four international human rights organizations – Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and International Commission of Jurists – have urged the permanent representatives of member and observer countries of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on Monday to adopt a strong resolution on human rights in Sri Lanka during the ongoing session of the council.   

The 51st regular session of the UN human rights body commenced on September 12 and will continue until October 7.   

What could be the content of the strong resolution the four leading international rights organizations suggest? In March, 2021 the UNHRC adopted the resolution 46/1 recommending the member countries to exercise “universal jurisdiction” to take legal action against the human rights violators in Sri Lanka in their respective countries and to “explore possible targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans against credibly alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses.”   

In their letter the organizations do not suggest any specific action to make the resolution strong except for recalling what the member states are permitted to do under universal jurisdiction to the suspects of human rights violations. They are apparently referring to the actions recommended by the UNHRC resolution 46/1, especially prosecuting when the alleged perpetrator is present in any territory under their jurisdiction.   

This resolution might have made blood in at least a few politicians and security forces personnel in Sri Lanka run cold, as their names had been referred to in the recent past by foreign human rights organizations. Some people are barred from entering some countries while actions had been filed against some others in various countries by human rights groups, long before this resolution was passed.   

One could attribute this resolution to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who had been accused for the bloody crackdowns against protestors at Weliweriya, Chilaw, Katunayake and Welikada during the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration not taking drastic action against protestors during his tenure as President. During the teachers’ struggle against anomalies in their salaries last year he had hinted such a fear. One could recall the newspapers having reported that in response to a suggestion by the then Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara to attack the demonstrators he had accused that the minister was attempting to create a situation where he would not be able to visit a foreign country.   

However, for the member states to act they should have the details of the alleged perpetrators of human rights violations or war crimes and the offences they had allegedly committed. The same resolution of March 2021 provides for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish a central database where information and evidence of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka can be stored and analyzed.   

On September 14, 2021 during the 48th regular session of the council the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet while presenting her oral update said “We have developed an information and evidence repository with nearly 120,000 individual items already held by the UN, and we will initiate as much information-gathering as possible this year.”   

This is the international mechanism that will serve to support future trials of Sri Lankans accused of rights abuses in foreign countries. Therefore the United Nations Human Rights office would have to share the information in its repository with the member countries, including Sri Lanka, to take action.   

The wrangling between the UNHRC and successive Sri Lankan governments seems to continue for another few years or another decade, unless one party or both parties take drastic or decisive action to end it. Sri Lankan leaders have each year been giving various promises to the world human rights body but shows very slow progress in implementation. Every year the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expresses his/ her displeasure over this slow progress.   

The latest report of the high commissioner which was presented by the Acting High Commissioner Nada Al-Nashif says “Thirteen years on from the end of the war, families of the disappeared are still searching for truth and justice for enforced disappearances”… “For more than a decade, there has been almost no progress in most emblematic human rights cases highlighted in previous reports.”… “Impunity remains a central obstacle to the rule of law, reconciliation and Sri Lanka’s sustainable peace and development, remains the core risk factor for recurrence of further violations.”   

Former Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena informed the UNHRC during its 2020 March session that government had decided to appoint a commission headed by a Supreme Court judge to study the past commissions on human rights and to find out what further steps need to be taken to implement the recommendations made by those commissions. And the government appointed that commission with Supreme Court Judge A.H.M.D.Navaz as its Chairman, just two months prior to the next year’s March session. The commission presented its second interim report February 18 this year recommending establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.   

While both sides have been discussing about a truth-seeking commission since the end of the war between the armed forces and the LTTE in May 2009, foreign Minister Ali Sabry addressing the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday said that government endeavours to establish a credible truth-seeking mechanism within the framework of the Constitution.   

Successive government leaders seem to be of the view that this process can be dragged on further in the same way, at least until the end of their tenure. However, the stance of the successive leaders in Geneva on the other hand has been toughening. First, in 2012, they proposed just to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. When the government failed to show results, they, two years later conducted an investigation into the human rights violations in the country and announced that both the armed forces and the LTTE had breached international law on human rights by unlawfully killing civilians, abducting civilians killing people in “no fire zones.” The UN body recommended a “hybrid court” to probe alleged violations in 2015. Now they are targeting individuals and institutions through the resolution 46/1 to be penalized in other countries.   

Originally, only the excesses allegedly taken place during the war was considered as war crimes or human rights violations and then the incidents that occurred after the war such as those which happened in Weliweriya, Welikada were also included. This year economic issues have also been counted as rights violations. It is up to the authorities to find out where they went wrong and make amends. 

courtesy Daily Mirror

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