Sanja De Silva Jayatilleka
The UN Human Rights Council’s first sessions for the year, also known as the ‘High Level Segment’ on account of the participation of high level delegates such as Ministers and even heads of states, is due to commence in a few days, on the 26th of February and will continue until the 23rd of March. It is the 37th regular session of the UNHRC.
It is at this session that the High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein will present an interim report on the implementation of Resolution 30/1, which will be his final report on the subject as he completes his 4-year term this summer. His earlier reports caused controversy because he called on all member states of the UN to apply ‘universal jurisdiction’ to those Sri Lankans who are accused of war crimes. This mechanism enables arrest and prosecution in other countries. The final report is to be presented at the 40th session in March 2019.
It is also at this upcoming session that the final report on Sri Lanka’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) which took place last year will be officially adopted. The report includes recommendations made by other countries for the improvement of human rights in Sri Lanka as well as voluntary commitments made by Sri Lanka. One of those voluntary commitments by Sri Lanka includes a controversial promise to establish a judicial mechanism with special counsel: “Fulfil commitments contained in Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 towards the operationalization of the Office on Missing Persons, and the establishment of a truth seeking commission, an office for reparations, and a judicial mechanism with a special counsel.”
Apart from these reports, UN accredited NGOs present their own reports on their evaluation of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka at every session. At this 37th session, there are several NGO reports containing serious allegations which could be harmful to Sri Lanka if they are not countered with due diligence. NGOs can be influential in creating opinion and have made successful interventions at the Council.
One of the reports deals with Sri Lankan volunteers for UN Peacekeeping Operations. It has already been reported in the Sri Lankan media that the appointment of Lt. Col. Wasantha Kumara Hewage who was due to head the 12th Force Protection Company (FPC) for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), has been halted in the face of complaints that he was unsuitable for the task. An NGO report submitted to the 37th session of the UNHRC reiterates this objection on the basis that he was a participant in the final stages of Sri Lanka’s war against the terrorist Tigers that ended in May 2009!
Incredibly, this report also claims that his Facebook post supportive of Brigadier Priyanka Fernando disqualifies him further: “Furthermore, Lt. Col. Hewage has on his Facebook page expressed support for the Sri Lankan defence attaché in London, Brigadier Priyanka Fernando, after he thrice made throat-slitting gestures at a crowd of peaceful Tamil protestors on 4 February 2018, causing a huge controversy. Tamil groups, UP parliamentarians and the main opposition party in Sri Lanka, the Tamil National Alliance, have all called for the attaché to be expelled for his offensive and intimidating behaviour unfitting for a diplomat.”
The entire report attempts to propose that any person who took part in that war of national reunification and liberation from terrorism, should be automatically disqualified from being part of the UN peacekeeping operations. The report is titled ‘STOP DEPLOYMENT OF UN PEACEKEEPER WITH FRONTLINE COMBAT EXPERIENCE IN SRI LANKA’S 2009 WAR’.
The report assumes that the reasons should be self-evident: “I don’t need to tell you that the UN in several reports since 2011, documented and reported on the extensive violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law perpetrated by the Sri Lankan security forces during the final phase of the civil war in Sri Lanka. These violations involved repeated targeted attacks on civilian objects, such as hospitals and food queues, denial of food and medicine to civilians, as well as extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearance by the military, which met the threshold for war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
It is incumbent on the government via its Foreign Ministry to ensure that misinformation spread right into the heart of UN bodies such as the UNHRC is effectively countered, wherever it comes from.
Another report submitted at this session titled “The Failure of the Government of Sri Lanka to Implement Its Commitments on Accountability in Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1”, says that there are “ongoing human rights violations against the Tamil and Muslim communities” apart from “torture, sexual and gender-based violence, human smuggling and trafficking, economic strangulation” etc by the armed forces :
“In addition to the lack of progress on reconciliation and transitional justice, the Government has not prevented ongoing human rights violations against the Tamil and Muslim communities as well as journalists, human rights defenders and political dissidents. The counter-terrorism apparatus remains in place, undiminished and unreformed, albeit less visible under the current government. Abductions, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, illegal land appropriation, state-sponsored population transfers that change the demography of Tamil areas, religious and cultural intolerance, language and economic discrimination, political exclusion and gerrymandering, appropriation of timber, agricultural land, minerals and resources of the sea under the protection of the state8 are all continuing under the current government.”
“These abuses are exacerbated by the presence of one of the highest concentrations of military forces in the world by one of the largest militaries (per capita) in Asia, most of whom remain deployed in the Tamil and Muslim areas in the North-East. The nearly 100% Sinhalese security forces have committed torture, sexual and gender-based violence, human smuggling and trafficking, economic strangulation, monetary extortion and surveillance of all civilian activities. These abuses against the Tamil population, which have taken place in the aftermath of mass atrocities, are aimed at the destruction of the Tamil community within our own ‘area of historical habitation’ on the island.”
This report represents the views of the “British Tamils Forum (BTF), The United States Political Action Council (USTPAC), NGOs without consultative status” according to their statement, although it is submitted under the name of Pasumai Thaayagam Foundation.
Yet another report titled “Sri Lanka: Civilian Land under Military Occupation” alleges that: “… Although military checkpoints have been reduced over recent years, the armed forces remain heavily involved in public life. In this context, surveillance, harassment and intimidation of civil society, human rights activists, NGO workers and journalists are still widespread…Since the end of the war, the military has established itself as a major player in the local economy. Its forces are involved in a range of commercial activities, such as agriculture, catering and tourism. These economic activities by the military deprive the local population of important sources of income. Particularly in farming, they put the security forces in direct competition with the local population for scarce resources, such as water, while it is also reported that the military sells its agricultural products below the usual market price. Local farmers cannot compete with such prices.”
The government should respond seriously to these allegations and not simply ignore them, since these reports are now lodged at the UN. Their responses should also be made available widely if Sri Lanka’s image is not to be tarnished at the hands of those who are determined to discredit Sri Lanka’s victorious war against terrorism. It is concerning that there are attempts to show that serious human rights violations are an on-going, 9 years after the war has ended. Sri Lanka’s High Level delegation to the 37th session of the Human Rights Council has its work cut out.