The UN’s failure to act on Sri Lanka could spur a global pandemic of impunity, former top UN officials and human rights experts warned during a widely publicised webinar last week, ahead of a key Human Rights Council session in Geneva.
A webinar titled Sri Lanka: Quest for Justice, Rule of Law and Democratic Rights was held on 12 February. It was co-hosted by the Global Tamil Forum, the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice of the New York University, the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice and the Canadian Tamil Congress. In addition to Sri Lankan activists and politicians, the webinar featured pre-eminent global experts on human rights and transitional justice including the former UN Special Rapporteur on transitional justice, Pablo de Greiff.
All of the international experts cautioned against pinning hope on the United Nations to achieve justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka and advocated for systems and institutional structures to be put in place that would foster a reckoning with Sri Lanka’s legacy of war, and prevent a recurrence of violence.
“Impunity is contagious,” said former US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Stephen Rapp. “When the message was that you could get away with killing people, it led people to believe they can get away with other things.” For years Sri Lanka has been in the throes of an epidemic of impunity which threatens others, the former US Ambassador said.
The world was risking a pandemic of impunity, Rapp said, if the message from the UNHRC process on Sri Lanka was that governments could simply wait the process out for a decade.
Rapp’s remarks were reinforced by former UN Assistant Secretary General Charles Petrie whose 2012 review of the UN’s role in Sri Lanka in 2012 found damning evidence of a ‘systemic failure’ to act to fulfill its mandate to prevent humanitarian disasters and human rights abuses. Petrie said Sri Lanka is travelling down a ‘dangerous path’ and emphasised that the country’s problems could not be solved by the UN and other outside actors but by the people of Sri Lanka and its leadership coming to terms with its painful past. “Sri Lanka again presents serious questions about the seriousness and effectiveness of the UN’s commitment to fulfilling its mandate. “I would urge those in Sri Lanka who are in greatest need, not to expect the UN to live up to its responsibility” to protect the people, Petrie noted in his remarks.
The experts called on the international community to heed High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s recommendations in her report to the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council and implement travel bans and targeted sanctions including those under the Magnitsky Act to act against perpetrators of alleged atrocities.
De Greiff, a former UN Special Rapporteur, said Sri Lanka had adopted a policy of quasi-compliance with its international obligations that was failing its own citizens. He argued that studies have now shown that societies that fail to undertake a meaningful process of truth-seeking and redress for violations are doomed to repeat cycles of violence.
TNA MP and President’s Counsel M.A. Sumanthiran, former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Ambika Sathkunanathan, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives and attorney-at-law Bhavani Fonseka, Women’s Rights Activist Shreen Saroor and Director of International Affairs for the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Ameer Faaiz also participated in the webinar.
The Sri Lankan speakers addressed a broad range of issues confronting Sri Lanka including the shrinking of democratic space for dissent, the failure to achieve justice for victims of human rights abuses, increasingly militarised governance, discrimination towards the country’s religious minorities and the surveillance and crackdowns on civil society and government critics and the enactment of the 20th Amendment which had strengthened the presidency while eroding the rule of law and principle of the separation of powers.
The event was moderated by Melissa Dring from the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice.
“There was consensus among the presenters that Sri Lanka is entering a critical phase where the future for democracy, rule of law and good governance is bleak. The exclusionary and majoritarian thrust of the Government will disproportionately affect the minority communities. On its own, Sri Lanka will not deliver on accountability or justice. This is the time for strong international involvement to prevent future violent conflict,” a media release from the organisers said.