By DharishaBastians in Geneva
Sri Lanka has shown little commitment to setting up a special judicial mechanism to prosecute alleged war crimes, the United Nations said in a new report released in Geneva yesterday that criticises the Government for its “slow pace of progress” on post-war reconciliation and justice.
In a hard-hitting report to the 34th Session of the UN Human Rights Council currently meeting in Geneva, UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the Government had prioritised only truth and reparations aspects of the transitional justice process it committed to in the 2015 resolution.
“While acknowledging the complexity of establishing such a judicial mechanism, the High Commissioner considers that preparatory work for judicial mechanisms should already be at an advanced stage,” the report observed.
The High Commissioner’s report also makes the astute observation that party politics and the balance of power in the ruling coalition in Sri Lanka had contributed to a reluctance to address “difficult issues” relating to accountability for grave crimes committed during the war in the run up to constitutional reforms.
While noting the positive advances on human rights and constitutional reform, and symbolic gestures of reconciliation, Zeid told the Council that “the fulfilment of transitional justice commitments has, however, been worryingly slow.”
High Commissioner Zeid, who is reviewing progress made by the Government of Sri Lanka on the implementation of the 2015 UNHRC resolution, said measures taken during the period under review were inadequate to ensure real progress.
“Eighteen months after the adoption of resolution 30/1, Sri Lanka has made some measure of elementary progress in reconciliation, in addressing the root causes of the conflict, and in truth-seeking,” the report said, calling for “stronger, tangible results” to prevent a further erosion of trust.
His report urges Sri Lanka to operatationalise the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) enacted in late 2016. “A credible, trustworthy and accessible OMP will serve as a litmus test for any future transitional justice mechanism,” the High Commissioner notes.
Noting Government failures on communicating its policies on reconciliation and justice, the High Commissioner calls for the launch of a communications campaign to inform the public about the objectives, time frame and rationale of the reconciliation agenda.
The report also makes scathing references to the continued failure to address what the UN calls “emblematic cases” of impunity, including the Trinco-5 murders, the 17 aid workers in Muttur in 2006 and the Welikada prison riot of 2012. The report also points to recent acquittals of suspects charged in the Raviraj assassination and the Kumarapuram massacre in 1996. Zeid charges that the state continues to show a lack of capacity or willingness to prosecute perpetrators in serious crimes linked to the security forces.
“The failure to show progress in these cases only strengthens the case for the establishment of a specialised court to deal with system crimes, staffed by specialised personnel and supported by international practitioners,” Zeid’s strongly worded report said.
The High Commissioner also observes that while there had been limited progress made on transitional justice, progress was visible in the constitutional reform process.
“The High Commissioner is encouraged by the manner in which political dialogue has progressed, and understands that there is a focus on political settlement and devolution,” the report to the Council states.
International human rights activists also called on member countries of the UN Human Rights Council to take note of the High Commissioner’s report, and push for a more substantive resolution on Sri Lanka at this month’s session.
The High Commissioner’s report underlines just how far there is to go before the promise of reconciliation, justice and reform becomes a reality in Sri Lanka, the Human Rights Watch said, in a reaction to the new UN report. Human Rights Watch Geneva Director John Fisher urged the Human Rights Council to adopt a “substantive resolution” at the current session to ensure continued international scrutiny until the Government of Sri Lanka delivers on its commitments in full.
“Seventeen months ago, when we published a detailed report on the grave human rights violations committed during the conflict in Sri Lanka, I urged the Government and all the people of Sri Lanka to ensure that this historic opportunity for truly fundamental change should not be squandered,” High Commissioner Zeid said, in a press release issued by his Office.
“This critical opportunity in Sri Lankan history cannot be missed. I urge the Government and people of Sri Lanka to prioritise justice alongside reconciliation to ensure that the horrors of the past are firmly dealt with, never to recur,” the High Commissioner asserted.
In the 2015 UN resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, Zeid’s Office was mandated to assess Sri Lanka’s progress in tackling the legacy of grave violations in the island between 2002-2011, and report back to the Council at its 34th session that commenced this week. In his report, the High Commissioner urges the Government of Sri Lanka to invite the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to establish a full-fledged presence in the island.
The High Commissioner will present the report to the Human Rights Council on 22 March in Geneva.
Eleven TNA MPs sign appeal to UN against giving Sri Lanka more time
Eleven TNA parliamentarians have signed a joint appeal to the UN Human Rights Council which is meeting in its 34th Session this month, lobbying the Council to refrain from granting Sri Lanka an extension to implement the 2015 resolution beyond the March 2017 deadline.
“Sri Lanka voluntarily co-sponsored this Resolution and committed to fully implement the requirements of the Resolution by March 2017. Extensions and grace periods have been given already, but no progress has been made on any front,” the appeal states.
The appeal which has been signed by Tamil MPs and victim groups, says any extension of time will embolden the Sri Lankan Government to “commit human rights abuses against Tamils without fear” and calls for a referral of Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court in the Hague through the UN Security Council.
TNA MPs S. Sritharan, Selvam Adaikalanathan, Dharmalingam Sitharthan, S. Yogeswaran, Sivasakthi Ananthan, G. Srinesan, Charles Nirmalanathan, Shanthi SrishKantharaja, Dr. Siva Mohan, S. Viyalanderan, and K. Kodeeswaran, have placed their signatures on the appeal to the UN. Eighteen victim and civil society groups and four former Parliamentarians, including EPRLF Leader Suresh Premachandran have also signed the appeal.
TNA welcomes Zeid’s report, says Govt failures are eroding trust of the Tamils
The Tamil National Alliance has welcomed the UN High Commissioner’s report on Sri Lanka, and expressed its own concerns about the lack of progress on accountability.
“We have called on the Government to present a time-bound action plan to implement its own commitments,” the TNA said in a statement following the release of Zeid’s report to the Council.
The country’s main Tamil party said that the Government had failed to pursue confidence-building measures, including land releases, the release of prisoners, repealing of the PTA and ending military involvement in commercial and civilian activities.
“The failure of the Government on these issues is steadily eroding the trust of our people,” the Tamil party claimed.
The TNA added that the systemic failure to make progress on emblematic cases in the regular courts highlights the need for a special court with robust international participation in keeping with the Government’s commitments. “We welcome the High Commissioner’s recommendation echoing this demand. We also call on the Government to operationalise the Office on Missing Persons forthwith,” the Tamil party said in its statement following the release of the report.
“The inexplicable delay in doing so unconscionably prolongs the agony of the families of the disappeared,” it added.