ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, presented his report pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 on Sri Lanka. The report acknowledged some positive advances on human rights and constitutional reform, and noted that five Special Procedures mechanisms had visited Sri Lanka as well as four treaty bodies having reviewed Sri Lanka’s progress in implementing recommendations.
Progress to establish transitional justice mechanisms had been slow; what was needed now was agreement on a comprehensive strategy, with a time-line and detailed benchmarks, to address all the transitional justice pillars identified in resolution 30/1. Sri Lanka’s ratifications of various conventions, including the Convention on Enforced Disappearances and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, were also significant steps forward. In the face of rising frustration among victims, a number of confidence-building measures must be accelerated. Those included repealing the prevention of terrorism act and the design of truth and reparation processes.
Combined with a general lack of trust in the impartiality of the justice system regarding past violations, the continuing unwillingness or inability to address impunity reinforced the need for international participation in a judicial mechanism. That mechanism should include a special counsel, foreign judges and defence lawyers, and authorized prosecutors and investigators. As cases of torture, excessive use of force and failure to respect due process continued to be reported, there was clearly a need for unequivocal instructions to all branches of the security forces that any such conduct was unacceptable and that abuses would be punished. Sri Lanka’s “courageous” civil society and human rights defenders must be protected from harassment and intimidation, said the High Commissioner, adding that he was disturbed to hear reports of intimidation of members of civil society here in the Palais des Nations. At the centre of all of the efforts were the victims: there could never be sustainable peace without justice for them.
Statement by the Concerned Country
Sri Lanka, speaking as the concerned country, recalled that Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister on 28 February had reiterated before the Council Sri Lanka’s resolve to achieve the reconciliation process and its commitments articulated in resolution 30/1. The Minister had outlined achievements, what remained to be done, and the challenges faced. Sri Lanka reiterated its resolve and commitment again today to the reconciliation process and announced it planned to co-sponsor the resolution on Sri Lanka, which included a two-year extension for the timeline for the implementation of its commitments. Sri Lanka expressed its commitment to continue its engagement for the benefit of its people, working to promote and protect human rights; and it recognised the need to strengthen its institutions and achieve economic progress. Sri Lanka expressed its commitment to exchange information, share concerns and comments, and to engage constructively with partners. It affirmed the country’s firm position to enhance the fundamental rights of all the citizens as equals in a free and democratic country, where the reconciliation process recognised the impact of conflict on all citizens, independently of their origin or status.
Interactive Dialogue on the Situation of Human Rights in Sri Lanka
European Union acknowledged Sri Lanka’s progress in advancing human rights. However, a number of outstanding challenges remained, such as ending torture and sexual and gender-based violence. The European Union urged Sri Lanka to replace the prevention of terrorism act, and to accelerate the prosecution or release of detainees, and downsize the military. Canada noted the efforts towards the establishing of the Office of Missing Persons in Sri Lanka, and democratic and constitutional reforms. But, much worked remained to be done, notably strengthening the rule of law, and enabling confidence-building and an impartial judiciary. Czechia highly appreciated the cooperation of Sri Lanka with human rights mechanisms and strongly supported Sri Lanka on its path to full reconciliation. The process of reconciliation and accountability was a necessary prerequisite for peace and peaceful coexistence of ethnic and religious groups.
Germany noted that constitutional reforms were a unique opportunity for Sri Lanka to reach a political solution over issues that had impaired the peaceful development of the country. It encouraged the Government to tackle the remaining issues, such as return of the land confiscated by the military and repeal of the prevention of terrorism act. Montenegro reminded that the full implementation of the Council’s resolution on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights remained a key challenge towards a comprehensive transformation of Sri Lanka. In that respect, technical and financial support for the Government of Sri Lanka was of utmost importance.
Denmark encouraged Sri Lanka to repeal the prevention of terrorism act and replace it with human rights compliant legislation, return all military-held private land, and establish credible transitional justice mechanisms. Lack of progress on a number of emblematic cases was disappointing and Sri Lanka should adopt a clear, time bound and transparent strategy and plan of action for a solid and credible justice process with effective witness protection. France remained concerned about the harassment of human rights defenders and allegations of systematic use of torture and ill treatment, including sexual violence by security forces. Sri Lanka must ensure that there was no impunity for the perpetrators of those crimes. Switzerland regretted the delay in the implementation of measures to ensure transitional justice and constitutional reform and said that only a global reconciliation process with tangible measures for truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition could bring lasting peace and prosperity to the people of Sri Lanka.
Japan said it had long been involved in the Sri Lankan peace process and hoped that the High Commissioner and his Office would continue close cooperation with the Government as it was crucial for reconciliation, as was the acceptance of the national reconciliation process by all citizens. Australia recognized the progress made in the constitutional reform, inclusive national consultations and passing the legislation for the establishment of the Office of Missing Persons. Sri Lanka should adopt a clear roadmap for the implementation of transitional justice mechanisms and also adopt a new anti-terrorism legal framework. United Kingdom commended the positive steps taken by Sri Lanka and stressed that much remained to be done. Sri Lanka should provide determined leadership to deliver fully on the commitments made when co-sponsoring resolution 30/1 and to develop a comprehensive and time bound implementation strategy.
China commended Sri Lanka for building infrastructure and strengthening the rule of law and noted that the country had been active in the Universal Periodic Review process. The international community should support Sri Lanka in promoting national reconciliation. Pakistan said Sri Lanka had made tremendous progress in terms of the formulation of legislation, policy and legal framework in recent years. The international community was called on to continue to provide relevant assistance and support as requested by the Government of Sri Lanka in strengthening the country’s democratic institutions. New Zealand said accountability, justice and reconciliation were critical ingredients to rebuilding war-torn lives, and to further enhancing Sri Lanka’s status as a cohesive nation. New Zealand supported the extension of the resolution for a further 24-month period to allow time for a consolidated period of concerted effort before the next report.
United States noted that Sri Lanka had taken important steps toward implementing its key human rights, justice, and reconciliation commitments, but said the United States had hoped to see greater and more sustained progress over the past 18 months. The Government of Sri Lanka was encouraged to make public a strategy and timetable for the implementation of the reforms and commitments outlined in the Council’s resolution 30/1. Estonia expressed concern about the slow pace of the transitional justice process in Sri Lanka and asked the High Commissioner which trust-building measures were most urgently needed in Sri Lanka. Sudan commended the cooperation of Sri Lanka with mechanisms of the United Nations, and noted the adoption of the national human rights plan of action and the establishment of a human rights committee. The international community was called on to continue to provide support to Sri Lanka.
The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia welcomed the reform process taking place in Sri Lanka and encouraged the efforts being made in order to achieve a lasting reconciliation. It recognized the milestone that resolution 30/1 represented in this process. Norway commended Sri Lanka for its political commitment to reform and justice, and encouraged it to maintain and institutionalise the momentum of resolution 30/1 and to fulfil its promises. It emphasised the need to return the lands held by the military and replace the prevention of terrorism act. Ireland warmly welcomed resolution 30/1 and recognised the progress that Sri Lanka had made and the constitutional reforms. Ireland expressed its disappointment with the slow pace of the changes process, and urged the Government to persevere.
Spain welcomed the creation of the Office of Missing Persons and urged Sri Lanka to create a truth commission and a reparation programme. It also urged that Sri Lanka respect and support independent commissions, and it drew attention to the fact that human rights defenders were still harassed. United Nations Children’s Fund appreciated its cooperation with Sri Lanka and underlined the country’s considerable work to provide a legal framework concerning children rights. It urged Sri Lanka to give a voice to children as agents of peace-building in the discussions and to ensure that their best rights were considered in the process. Belgium commended Sri Lanka for the improvement of the human rights in the country, and for establishing the Office of Missing Persons. It regretted the little progress that had been made in investigating human rights violations and urged Sri Lanka to return private lands held by the military.
Netherlands appreciated the broad national consultation on reconciliation mechanisms and urged Sri Lanka to carry out the recommendations received and also to promptly operationalize the Office of Missing Persons, allocate resources and appoint the Commissioner. The implementation of transitional justice commitments was worryingly slow. Russia recognized Sri Lanka’s openness for dialogue with the United Nations human rights mechanisms and its constructive approach to the implementation of resolution 30/01. It was for Sri Lanka to define its own priorities and areas where the support of the international community was needed. Ghana was worried that the restitution of land held by the military remained an unfulfilled reconciliation commitment and encouraged Sri Lanka to publish the list of all detainees and detention centres, repeal the prevention of terrorism act, and release all those detained under this law.
Maldives understood the enormous challenges that Sri Lanka was facing in its reconciliation and rehabilitation process and agreed with the High Commissioner that structural reforms underway would strengthen the protection of human rights. Bangladesh recognized the strong willingness of Sri Lanka to work with the international community on genuine reconciliation and stressed that the country must be given ample time, without external pressure, to successfully complete the reconciliation process.
Tourner la page said that senior officials in Sri Lanka repeatedly rejected the notion of the Hybrid Court, and it was particularly alarming that the President of Sri Lanka had declared that no member of the armed forces would be charged in any court. Was it only through the referral of Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court or through the establishment of an ad hoc tribunal that the people of Sri Lanka would obtain justice? International Movement against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism said the present democratic space for justice was made possible because civil society members had risked their lives to bring resolution 30/1 to reality. Sri Lanka required the sustained attention of the Council, and Member States were called on to renew their efforts to encourage the Government to implement the pledges and to build trust among all communities and victims. Pasumai Thaayagam Foundation said justice had not reached the victims, and the Government’s progress on transitional justice was worryingly slow. The Human Rights Council should continue its oversight over the process in Sri Lanka.
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development urged Sri Lanka to implement all recommendations in the High Commissioner’s report. It was deeply concerning that there were reports of human rights abuses, and a strong military presence in the north and east of the country continued. Dominicans for Justice and Peace, in a joint statement with, Franciscans International, said resolution 30/1 was being inadequately implemented on the ground, and hopes were fading as confidence was eroding. The Government was called on to ensure that victims were able to participate in the process. Minority Rights Group said while progressive steps had been taken, the pace of reform was slow, and the absence of transparency was eroding that progress. It was crucial that a closely monitored time line was created.
Franciscans International said much more needed to be done, and a number of measures should ensure that transitional justice was realized. The Government had to heed the voices of its citizens. The prevention of terrorism act should be repealed and replaced with legislation in harmony with international human rights standards. Amnesty International noted that Sri Lanka had made limited progress in establishing new mechanisms to deliver truth, justice and reparation to victims. It continued to hold detainees arbitrarily or without charge, and torture persisted in police stations across the country.
ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, thanked all for the broad support received for his report and recommendations. He stressed that all the recommendations were important. Responding to comments made by the delegations and civil society, he said that the hesitation on the part of the Government of Sri Lanka concerning transitional justice was prompted by the position that there had already been defined targets. In September 2015, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had created a baseline which required further investigations of a criminal nature. Belief that no steps forward should be taken was an erroneous one. There was a lack of outcomes with respect to the emblematic cases and it deserved further consideration of the Government. The Office believed that it would continue working with the Government of Sri Lanka in a constructive manner and in a way that would place the suffering of victims at the centre of the process. Sri Lanka had to fundamentally change in order to build a future vastly different from the past. Unless victims on all sides believed that justice was done, it would be difficult to build a sustainable peace. The Office would continue to provide advice, to be vigilant and to remind the Government of Sri Lanka of its obligations.