The UNHRC draft resolution on Sri Lanka in its third revision contains a strengthened paragraph on the implementation of the 13th Amendment and sets the stage for the country’s human rights record to be in the international spotlight every six months.
The revised draft was expected to be tabled by end of business in Geneva yesterday (12) ahead of a UNHRC deadline for submission of draft proposals. However, written revisions to the text are possible until 16 March.
The 11 March draft calls on the Government of Sri Lanka to fulfil its commitments on devolution of power, and “respect local governance” by holding Provincial Council Elections and ensuring all Provincial Councils can function effectively in accordance with the 13th Amendment. The most recent revision to the paragraph on devolution makes specific reference to the Northern Provincial Council.
At the dialogue on Sri Lanka on 24 February, the Indian Government reiterated its call for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment in Sri Lanka and called on the Government to deliver on the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people. New Delhi is yet to make its position known on the Sri Lanka resolution at the UNHRC.
The revised draft dated 11 March and seen by Daily FT also calls on UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to present an oral update on Sri Lanka’s progress on reconciliation and pursuing justice for grave human rights violations in September 2021, followed by a written report in March 2022, one year from now. High Commissioner Bachelet is expected to deliver a comprehensive update to the Council when the resolution will come up for renewal at the UNHRC’s 51st Session in September 2022.
The revised text signals a departure from the original reporting schedule that gave Sri Lanka a year – March 2022 – before Bachelet was first due to provide another assessment on the country’s human rights situation.
In the 18-month period between the 46th Session of the Council and September 2022, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) will be mandated to establish a central database of information and evidence of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka that can be used to support international trials in jurisdictions outside the island.
As Daily FT previously reported, if the resolution is adopted at the end of the current UNHRC session, the OHCHR evidence preservation mechanism on Sri Lanka will have an operating budget of at least $ 2 million and a team of between six to 10 personnel including legal officers, analysts, and victim support officers.
Based on the most recently-revised version of the draft resolution seen by the Daily FT, the evidence collection and preservation mechanism led by the OHCHR will be mandated to “develop strategies” for prosecutions against perpetrators of grave rights violations and related crimes in Sri Lanka. These include war-time abuses including enforced disappearances, summary executions and indiscriminate shelling of civilian and humanitarian targets, political murders and enforced disappearances and attacks against journalists.
Sponsors of UNHRC resolutions often agree to soften the language of their texts to win consensus from the 47-member body, which would in turn send a signal of unity on highly-charged human rights issues. . The 2021 resolution on Sri Lanka in contrast at the Human Rights Council has seen unprecedented tightening of language as the weeks wear down to a vote on the draft at the end of the 46th Session UNHRC, which observers said could be signalling a degree of confidence on the part of the co-sponsors that the Council may vote to adopt the resolution.
Twelve years after the war ended in Sri Lanka, perpetrators of alleged violations have never been brought to justice. The failure to deliver justice for conflict era crimes has kept Sri Lanka high on the agenda of the Human Rights Council, the UN’s leading human rights body that meets in Geneva three times a year.
The previous Yahapalanaya administration won reprieve from the prospect of international accountability measures when it co-sponsored a UNHRC resolution in 2015 and 2017. The previous Government pledged to establish local mechanisms with independent experts to seek accountability for serious human rights abuses and alleged war-time atrocities.
The co-sponsorship came a year after President Mahinda Rajapaksa suffered a severe international blow when the UNHRC voted to open an international investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, led by the OHCHR in 2014. The OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) found credible evidence that war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law were committed by government troops and the LTTE in the 2002-2009 period.
At the time, international observers and rights advocates said the natural next step would have been the establishment of a special Commission of Inquiry on Sri Lanka, and increased focus on the country’s rights record that could have led to bilateral economic sanctions and foreign travel bans on alleged perpetrators.
Sri Lanka’s decision to co-sponsor the resolution in 2015 and 2017 after President Rajapaksa’s defeat in January 2015, stemmed that tide, the observers said, even though the former Government fell short on all its commitments on justice and reconciliation. Six years after the OISL presented its report on Sri Lanka, if the 2021 resolution is adopted, the OHCHR will take the lead on another international mechanism to push for justice for Sri Lankan victims.
The current Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa campaigned strongly against the co-sponsorship, insisting that it was tantamount to selling out the armed forces and allowing international interference in domestic affairs.
However, the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), Office for Reparations, and the framework for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission – all of which stemmed from the Government’s UNHRC commitments – were entirely Sri Lankan in design and implementation and staffed by local experts.
Although his political party voted against the transitional justice measures while in Opposition, the Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has continued to keep the OMP and the Reparations Office operational.
Soon after it assumed power in 2019, the new Government announced it was withdrawing from co-sponsorship at the UNHRC. Now, the Government faces mounting criticism for blocking accountability and justice for grave rights abuses, and Sri Lanka’s exit from co-sponsorship has significantly reduced its leverage at negotiations on the form and substance of the UNHRC resolution, according to observers at the Council.
The UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka this year has shifted the focus away from domestic processes to reckon with the legacy of the island’s protracted Civil War and other serious human rights violations, and sparked a resumption of efforts to seek justice internationally, for crimes committed in Sri Lanka.