The legacy and closure of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war and the country’s complicated human rights record will take centre-stage as the 46th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) kicks off in Geneva today.(Feb 22)
Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunewardane will address the 46th Session of the Council during the ‘high-level segment’ on Wednesday between 1.30-4.30 p.m. local time via video conference, with coronavirus pandemic protocols put in place for the meeting.
Soon after the high-level segment, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet will deliver her oral report on Sri Lanka, followed by an interactive dialogue where Member States of the Council will weigh in on her appraisal.
Bachelet’s oral statement will be based on her scathing 17-page update on Sri Lanka’s compliance with previous UNHRC resolutions that urged the country to make good on post-war justice and reconciliation commitments.
The Council is likely to adopt a resolution on Sri Lanka at the conclusion of its month-long session which will end on 19 March. Calls are mounting internationally for the UNHRC to take decisive action on Sri Lanka, by way of a strong resolution at the end of the 46th Session.
In her report to the Council, High Commissioner Bachelet issued an early warning that Sri Lanka’s current trajectory sets the scene for a recurrence of grave human rights violations.
The UN Rights Chief has urged Member States of the UN to take swift preventative action on Sri Lanka to prevent a human rights calamity in the country, including the options of travel bans, targeted sanctions and asset freezes against alleged perpetrators of grave violations and atrocities.
Global human rights watchdogs have also sounded the alarm.
In a 93-page report released on 1 February, Human Rights Watch examined efforts by the post-2019 Rajapaksa Government to obstruct and prevent justice in seven key human rights cases, that the UN has called “emblematic” of Sri Lanka’s culture of impunity for heinous crimes.
“The UN Human Rights Council should adopt a resolution at its upcoming session that demonstrates to the Rajapaksa administration that the world won’t ignore its abuses and offers hope of justice to victims’ families,” the report stated.
On 18 February, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka report said the Government had launched a renewed crackdown on dissent that was severely curtailing civil society freedom and obstructing efforts to deliver justice for conflict-era crimes under international law.
The report, Old Ghosts in new Garb: Sri Lanka’s Return to Fear, exposed how the Government has targeted human rights organisations, media, lawyers, political opponents, and law enforcement officers in a concerted bid to suppress opposing voices and hamper the transitional justice process for crimes committed during the country’s 30-year armed conflict.
“Over the past year, the Sri Lankan Government has radically transformed the country’s civic space, which is now defined by an increasing hostility and intolerance towards dissenting voices,” said Amnesty International Secretary-General’s Office Director David Griffiths when the report was released. “People from all walks of life have been threatened, intimidated, harassed and jailed, simply for expressing views or doing their jobs in ways that displease the authorities,” Griffiths noted.
An early draft of the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka, which is subject to revision, includes a mandate for the Bachelet’s Office to gather and preserve evidence in anticipation of future trials against the violations as fears mount that material gathered in evidence from 2015-2019 could be lost.
The draft resolution calls on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to “consolidate, preserve and analyse” evidence relating to human rights violations in Sri Lanka. The operative – or actionable – paragraph in the resolution also calls on the OHCHR to “develop possible strategies for future accountability processes…advocate for victims and survivors, and to support judicial proceedings in Member States with competent jurisdiction”.
The Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has vowed to contest the draft after it pulled out of co-sponsorship of a previous resolution adopted in 2015 and rolled over in 2017 and 2019, which tied Sri Lanka to commitments on reconciliation and justice for alleged atrocities and grave human rights abuses committed in war time.
Sri Lanka has powerful allies in the Council this year, with China, Russia, Pakistan among the 47 Member States that will vote on the resolution at the end of the Session. As Chair of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), Pakistan is also expected to lobby heavily on Sri Lanka’s behalf with Islamic Member States with a vote on the Council.
However, diplomatic sources said the hand of the ‘core group’ – or the countries taking the lead on the Sri Lanka resolution had also been strengthened by the decision of the Biden Administration in the US to rejoin the Human Rights Council and support its work.
While the US is not currently a member of the Council, it wields significant lobbying power over other Member States, the sources told Daily FT. Soon after Bachelet issued her report, US officials vowed to pursue “alternative options” if domestic efforts to deliver justice for grave violations continued to fail victims in Sri Lanka.
India’s position on the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka remains uncertain with power struggles erupting in recent weeks between Colombo and its giant neighbour over the control and management of a container terminal in the Colombo Port and oil tank farms in Trincomalee. India’s decision will also be influenced by Tamil Nadu elections due in May, sources told Daily FT.
India voted in support of resolutions on Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013 but abstained in 2014 to oppose the decision of the Council to set up an international mechanism led by the OHCHR to investigate allegations of war crimes. The resolution was adopted despite India’s position, with 23 votes in favour.
India’s input on the resolution would prove decisive, sources with knowledge of lobbying efforts at the Council said, because many Member States prefer to take their cue from New Delhi on South Asian affairs.
The Human Rights Council already became the venue for a geo-political wrestling match between competing world powers once this year when a proxy battle erupted in December 2020 over the next UNHRC President. For the first time in the history of the Council established in 2006, Fiji’s Nazhat Shameem Khan had to be elected as President of the UNHRC instead of assuming office by consensus. The UNHRC presidency rotates by region, with a nominee decided through consensus of Member States of the region. Khan, Fiji’s top diplomat in Geneva was the nominee of the Asia Pacific region and expected to assume office uncontested, until Bahrain proposed a candidate of its own at the eleventh hour, backed by China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The move was seen as an effort by the powerful bloc to wrest control of the Council agenda in a way that would curtail the influence of the United States as it rejoined the Council after its Trump-era departure. Khan won the election handily in the end. UNHRC observers point to the battle over the Council presidency, to understand the geo-political contours of the impending tussle over the Sri Lanka resolution at the 46th Session.
Hectic lobbying is underway in Geneva and major capitals all over the world, on the Sri Lanka resolution. Daily FT learns that President Rajapaksa has made efforts to personally canvass support for Sri Lanka at the Council from UNHRC Member States. Last week, Malawi announced it was joining the core group on the Sri Lanka resolution, led by the UK. The move struck a blow to Government efforts to sway the African bloc in its favour and against the resolution.
On the eve of the Geneva session, Gunewardane vowed that the Government had “started working on” a process to determine whether human rights violations had been committed during the final stages of the war that ended 12 years ago.
Victims would be provided justice and perpetrators would be punished, if the allegations were determined to be true, the Foreign Minister claimed, pointing to the new commission of inquiry established to determine the veracity of findings by other commissions set up to investigate human rights abuses. However, the UNHRC draft resolution on Sri Lanka already refers to the new commission and critiques it for lacking independence.
The Foreign Minister hinted that Sri Lanka had tricks up its sleeve, and unexpected support, and warned the core group that the road ahead would not be easy. Whether these will be famous last words or President Rajapaksa’s Government will lobby sufficient support to stop an international tidal wave rising against his Government, the month ahead will prove.