OHCHR Probe From Mid-June & Witness and Victim Protection Bill

manoganeshanWitness protection area of concern in probe

By Easwaran Rutnam

The investigation into the war in Sri Lanka by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) will be launched in mid-June, Rupert Colville, the spokesman for the OHCHR said.

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) will have the option of referring the report to the UN Security Council (UNSC) once it has been received by the UNHRC in March next year.

Colville said that initially, the report will be presented to the Human Rights Council and the UNHRC will then decide what to do next, as it has a range of options including referral to higher bodies. “The Security Council can take up any issues it chooses at any time, providing there is sufficient consensus on the Council itself,” Colville added. The Investigation Team will be operational for a period of 10 months (mid-June 2014 to mid-April 2015) and the first meeting of the full team, including external experts will be held in Geneva in July.

“The High Commissioner for Human Rights will present an oral update to the September session of the Human Rights Council, and its final report will be presented to the Council’s March 2015 session. In accordance with usual practice, OHCHR will ensure that the Government of Sri Lanka has the opportunity to provide comments on both the oral and comprehensive reports before they are issued,” the OHCHR spokesman said.

He said the investigation team will consist of 12 staff, including investigators, two forensics experts, a gender specialist, a legal analyst and various other staff with specialized skills.

The Coordinator is Sandra Beidas, a senior OHCHR staff member with more than 20 years’ experience in the field and extensive expertise in conducting human rights investigations. Meanwhile protection for witnesses and victims who are expected to give evidence to the investigations team is a major area of concern to the OHCHR.

“In her 5 June letter to the Government, the High Commissioner requested the Government to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety and security of witnesses, victims and other individuals who may come forward to share information, as well as to prevent any reprisals against those who cooperate with the international and national investigations. The team’s procedures and methods of work will be designed to protect witnesses and other sources both during the investigation and after it is over,” Colville said.

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Witness and Victim Protection Bill

The talk about passing the Witness and Victim Protection Bill which was first presented to the Parliament in 2008 has been silent for sometimes now. Despite the promise made by Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem late last year to pass the Bill by 2014, many are of the view that there is no mechanism established to date to protect witnesses and victims by law in Sri Lanka. When inquired, some politicians and civil society members told The Sunday Leader that in the absence of a witness protection mechanism in the country, civilians are hesitant and in fear of coming forward to give evidence on the crimes they have witnessed. 

Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe
Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) National Organiser

Our position is that we do not want the UNHRC investigation in the country.

If we do not allow the investigations to enter the country, there will not be a necessity of talking about witness protection with that regard. In general, it is true that witnesses are subjected to various harassments and threats by those who are involved in crimes.

There has to be a mechanism to protect their safety and it is good to have some sort of a law in place to do so.

But if such a law is being used to provide protection for those who testify against the country on alleged war crimes and human rights violation issues, it will be a threat to the national security.

Those who testify against the country from within or outside the country, if protected by law, then it will have adverse effects on the country.

There are two sides to the bill that we have to look at. Therefore it is unwise to pass such a bill urgently.

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Mano Ganesan 
Leader of the Democratic People’s Front (DPF)
The contradiction of the whole UNHRC mission is that there is no assurance of protection for the witnesses who are willing to give evidence.

It is equally important for Sri Lanka and the UNHRC that these witnesses are being protected – but in Sri Lanka there is no protection for the witnesses.

It is a timely issue that should be brought up as there are ongoing investigations. Sri Lanka should take measures to defend the witnesses.

The government should provide them security.
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Jehan Perera – Executive Director of the
National Peace Council of  
Sri Lanka (NPC)

Witness protection laws are standard procedures in every country that has credible and effective legal system.

Regardless of international investigations, Sri Lanka should have a provision for witnesses to illegal activities to testify against such actions.

There are many examples in Sri Lanka where witnesses are being harassed and intimidated by those who have committed the crime and stopped them from coming forward to testify.

Those witnesses need to be protected by law.

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Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu
Executive Director of the Centre for 
Policy Alternatives (CPA)
With the UNHRC commission coming, Rauf Hakeem is on record saying that the bill is in the cabinet subcommittee.

When compared to the mechanism practised in South Africa during the post-apartheid period, in Sri Lanka it is woefully inadequate, because there is no true political commitment in Sri Lanka.

How could it be so difficult to pass a witness and victim protection bill through the parliament?

However, even though the SL government has refused to cooperate with the commission on the UNHRC investigation, the President has said that the parliament should decide whether the government should entertain the commission.

We will have to see how parliament reacts.

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John Amaratunga
United National Party (UNP) MP

The government should pass the Witness and Victim Protection Bill in the Parliament.

There needs to be some mechanism to protect witnesses by law.

There are so many cases in the country where witnesses are being harassed by those who committed the crime.

Right now there is no protection for witnesses in Sri Lanka and therefore many witnesses are hesitant to come forward to testify.

It has to be in the law to protect the witnesses.

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Mavai Senathirajah
Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP

Witnesses have no protection in Sri Lanka.

The government has passed no resolution to protect those who come forward to testify.

Even with regard to the witnesses of war crime or in general the protection should be provided for them and the government should pass a resolution to assure their safety.

It is an urgent need of the country. Urgent and effective measures need to be taken to protect the witnesses especially as the country is facing the UNHRC investigation.