BY Pamodi Waravita
The world’s leading organisation of national human rights bodies has recommended that the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) be downgraded to a “B” status, primarily due to its appointment process and its failure to adequately address human rights violations.
The recommendation was made last week by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI), a partner of the United Nations (UN), and is contained in the report and recommendations of the virtual session of its Subcommittee on Accreditation (SCA), held from 18 to 29 October 2021.
The SCA noted that it questioned the HRCSL about the appointment process for its Chairperson and Commissioners; pluralism in the current membership, including the staff; the impact of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution on the HRCSL’s mandate; the responsiveness of the HRCSL to international human rights mechanisms; and actions taken by the HRCSL in connection with the intimidation of human rights defenders, the detention of protestors, deaths in police custody, and the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act No. 48 of 1979.
“In February 2021, the GANHRI’s Subcommittee on Accreditation (SCA) received correspondence from civil society organisations regarding the appointment process of the HRCSL, and related concerns with respect to the lack of pluralism in the HRCSL’s membership and staff, as well as its effectiveness in discharging its human rights mandate. During the 2021 session, the SCA conducted a telephone interview with the HRCSL in which the HRCSL was asked to provide responses in relation to a number of issues. While the SCA acknowledges that the HRCSL has provided some information in relation to the above-mentioned issues, in both its interview and written submission, it considers the responses insufficient to address the substance of its concerns,” the GANHRI said in its Accreditation Report released last week.
The previous review conducted by the SCA was in 2018, when it considered an application for re-accreditation from the HRCSL. On that occasion, the SCA recommended that the HRCSL be re-accredited with an “A” status.
The SCA said the recent downgrade is set to be effective only from the second half of 2022, unless the HRCSL could convince the SCA to reverse it.
“In view of the information before it, the SCA is concerned that the institution’s independence and effectiveness has not been sufficiently maintained in line with the requirements of the Paris Principles. The SCA notes that the HRCSL maintains ‘A’ status until the SCA’s second session of 2022. This allows an opportunity for the HRCSL to provide the documentary evidence necessary to establish its continued conformity with the Paris Principles,” it further stated.
The Paris Principles are a set of minimum standards put forth by national human rights institutions (NHRIs).
The SCA also encouraged the HRCSL to continue to actively engage with global human rights bodies and other national human rights institutions, as well as relevant stakeholders at international, regional, and national levels, in order to continue strengthening its institutional framework and working methods.
It also noted that the HRCSL has challenged the recommendation in accordance with Article 12.1 (ii) of the GANHRI statute, which is being reviewed.
Last year, Dr. Jagath Balasuriya was appointed as the Chairman of the HRCSL, and the appointment was widely criticised by a number of Opposition politicians and civil society activists who claimed that Dr. Balasuriya was actively involved in politics. He is a former Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) organiser for the Kegalle District. Prior to that, he was the Minister of National Heritage and the Acting Governor of Central Province in 2005 from September to December, both during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency between 2005 and 2015.
Dr. Balasuriya stepped down in November 2021 due to health reasons, and The Sunday Morning reported that Supreme Court Judge (Retd.) Rohini Perera Marasinghe, who was nominated by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was approved by the Parliamentary Council as the new Chairperson.