Sri Lanka vs Human Rights: More To Be Done

y Easwaran Rutnam

As International Human Rights Day was commemorated last Thursday, a top UN official said that there were encouraging signs that Sri Lanka will deal with human rights concerns related to the war but the new government was not willing to go all the way.

Christof Heyns, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said that for him Sri Lanka stands out as the most defining moment when carrying out his mandate in 2015.

“To me, the case of Sri Lanka stands out. And the resolution that has been taken in Geneva about that, in many cases, I think one has a situation where there are large scale killings, violence, and with this impunity, and for some time it looked like that was going to be the case with Sri Lanka,” he said.

Heyns noted that while it is still early days and no one knows exactly what and where the process in addressing human rights concerns in Sri Lanka will go, it is encouraging that the process went as far as it has gone.

“It is encouraging that it has not been completely imposed on the state, but the state itself is receptive to some of these ideas. And I think it’s encouraging for the system that it does not work in all cases but in some cases, the system can actually address this, and accountability is the central point really of protecting the right to life, without that it’s simply an ideal, but when one has accountability as we may have at least to some extend in Sri Lanka it’s an affirmation of the right to life,” he said.

However, he also noted that he has requested for a visit to Sri Lanka and he needs the approval from the Sri Lankan government to undertake the visit.

“They’ve accepted some of the other mandates, but not my mandate. But I have a standing request to the government to visit Sri Lanka, and I’ll drop everything if they say I can go,” he said.

The government has made several promises to address the human rights issues and make amends where required to ensure mistakes of the past are not repeated.

Sri Lanka had on Thursday signed a critical UN convention which ensures that the country will take stiff action against anyone involved in enforced disappearances.

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera announced that Sri Lanka had agreed to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. The Foreign Minister said that cabinet had approved the proposal to sign the key Convention.

The Convention has defined enforced disappearance as a violation of human rights and considered it as a criminal offence and has made its member states to draft legislations based on a set of principles. The Foreign Minister said that upholding human rights at home enables Sri Lanka to credibly point towards injustice and oppression in the world.

He also said that, “there is no need to fear having a frank and honest dialogue with human rights defenders and UN Special Procedures or our bilateral partners,” adding that engagement makes Sri Lanka stronger.

“In fact, Sri Lanka was once a country that was able to call on the world’s conscience – raising issues that affected the populations of the entire developing world on the world stage. If we are to regain that position and act as a voice and inspiration for others around the world, we must ensure that human rights at home are protected and secure,” he said.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) notes that on transitional justice, the government has promised establishing mechanisms and processes for truth seeking, justice, reparations and non-recurrence. Other promises include a review and repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), replacing it with ‘anti terrorism legislation in line with contemporary international best practices’, the review of the Public Security Ordinance, introducing legislation on the Right to Information and amending the Penal Code to criminalise enforced disappearances.

Furthermore, the government has promised to take steps to end military involvement in commercial activities and undertake security sector reform.

However, CPA says more need to be done to address continuing surveillance of victims and community groups. Frustrations also remain with delays in fully implementing promises such as release of more lands, release of detainees and repeal of the PTA.

“These confidence building measures are essential for genuine reconciliation. Successive governments made many promises but genuine progress beyond the rhetoric is limited,” CPA added. The Maithripala Sirisena government has promised a ‘credible domestic mechanism’. CPA’s latest Democracy Survey indicates that 48.1% of Sri Lankans are supportive of a credible mechanism on accountability on the final stages of the war.

Out of this, 43.8% support an exclusively domestic mechanism, 30% a hybrid mechanism with 17.1% supporting an exclusively international mechanism.

The European Union (EU) office in Colombo said that any successful application for the GSP Plus trade concession requires compliance with 27 International Conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention Against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Sri Lanka has signed and ratified all these conventions, and their effective implementation would also dovetail with the government’s political projects of reconciliation and good governance.

“Compliance with these Conventions is about concrete situations on the ground, and not only about sincere commitments from the government. When police react violently to student protestors it raises questions, including to what degree is a culture of violence embedded within the police and other branches of the security services. I know that the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has censured the police and I am interested to see the follow up on the part of the authorities,” the EU Ambassador to Sri Lanka David Daly said.

He said that when the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances met families of those who have disappeared, the WG reported that some of these people were subsequently questioned in relation to their visit. “If this is true, why is this still happening? The conversation on GSP Plus is not only about securing an important trade concession; it is also about advancing governance and human rights protection. In the years since the war’s end, there have been significant improvements in peoples’ lives and Sri Lanka has made impressive gains, particularly in economic and infrastructural development,” he added.

The EU, together with its Member States, has supported Sri Lanka’s post-war recovery by funding projects throughout the island, and is ready and willing to continue to do so. But Daly said that sustainable development must go hand-in-hand with the protection and promotion of human rights. Last month, the 28 EU Foreign Ministers issued a very important statement on Sri Lanka, welcoming the progress achieved and encouraging Sri Lanka to undertake all remaining preparatory work for a renewed GSP Plus application.

“When people ask me if Sri Lanka can rise to this challenge, my answer is straightforward: Sri Lanka can certainly do it, but only if it wants to, and only if it makes the necessary and sustained efforts,” he said.

Daly recalls the words of the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar who said, “the cake was baked at home.”

“In other words, GSP Plus can only be earned by the progress made here in Sri Lanka. This is in your hands as citizens. Lobby your government by asking the tough questions about how well Sri Lanka is upholding democratic values and protecting the rights of all its citizens,” the EU Ambassador said.

CPA, meanwhile, also notes that at the political level challenges remain. Although over 51% per cent of Sri Lanka’s population comprises of women, only 13 out of the 225 seats in Parliament are represented by women. CPA’s Democracy Survey shows that 73.5% surveyed agree that women representatives in Parliament, provincial councils and local authorities are low, with 64.8% stating there should be quotas at the national, provincial and local level.