Last week was a crucial week for Sri Lanka both at the UNGA and the UNHRC. A day after President Mahinda Rajapaksa explained his position on the UNHRC during his speech at the UNGA, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) explained its position on the investigation on Sri Lanka.
United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansier, on Thursday, presented the oral update related to the investigation on the war in Sri Lanka.
Pansier submitted a summary of the oral update and said that while commending the positive work done by the Sri Lankan Government following the end of the war, OHCHR would like to urge the Sri Lankan Government to keep the channels open with regards to the investigation on Sri Lanka.
In the OHCHR update, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has urged the Government to end the climate of intimidation, threat and harassment against civil society actors advocating for justice and human rights, as well as incitement to hatred and violence against the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities, which will only undermine the prospects for peace and reconciliation.
Notwithstanding the commendable progress the Sri Lankan Government has made in resettlement and reconstruction, the High Commissioner firmly believes that a more fundamental and far-reaching accountability process in Sri Lanka, addressing both past and ongoing violations, is absolutely necessary for Sri Lankans to come to terms with their past, end impunity, achieve reconciliation between communities and strengthen the rule of law.
After the update by Pansier, the Sri Lankan Government made its position known and insisted it will not agree to a ‘flawed process’ despite repeated calls to Sri Lanka by some countries led by the US and Britain to back the investigation.
Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Geneva Ravinatha Aryasinha, in his right of reply, said that Sri Lanka had already rejected the resolution under which the mandate was given for the UN-led investigations on Sri Lanka and that position still remained.
“Domestically, I wish to remind this august assembly that a motion moved in the Parliament of Sri Lanka against the investigation on Sri Lanka by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights received an overwhelming endorsement of more than 2/3rds majority in Parliament on 20 June 2014 (144 – 10). The reference by the High Commissioner to the resolutions adopted by the Northern Provincial Council cannot in anyway be equated to the endorsement given in the national legislature. In any event, a Provincial authority constitutionally has no mandate what so ever to adopt resolutions or take decisions on foreign policy issues which is entirely within the purview of the central government,” he said.
Aryasinha said the Government’s policy stance also received tacit endorsement by the people of Sri Lanka in successive provincial elections held since resolution 25/1 was adopted, in late March 2014 in the most populous, and more urbane Western and Southern Provincial Councils, and also the Uva Provincial Council election which concluded only a few days ago, where the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition was returned to office with an overall majority.
UNHRC members were later split on the investigation, the stand taken by the Sri Lankan Parliament on the probe and Sri Lanka refusing to assist the probe.
Sri Lanka’s most significant backing came from India. In the BJP Government’s first official response in the UNHRC to the investigation on Sri Lanka, India noted with concern that the High Commissioner for Human Rights has not indicated how he intends to proceed with his investigation in the absence of cooperation from the country concerned.
The Indian delegation to the UNHRC said that Sri Lanka should be given all necessary assistance in a ‘cooperative and collaborative manner’ following the war adding that engaging the country concerned in a collaborative and constructive dialogue and partnership is a more pragmatic and productive way forward.
This statement was significant as political parties in Tamil Nadu felt the BJP Government will take a stronger stand on Sri Lanka as opposed to the former Congress led Government which had also opposed the UN led investigation.
Montenegro, Canada and Britain were among the countries which supported the UN led probe on Sri Lanka while China, Russia, Cuba and Venezuela were among the countries which opposed the probe.
The European Union (EU) extended firm support to the investigation and urged the Sri Lankan Government to support the probe.
Britain said that to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation, the grievances of all those affected by the conflict must be addressed and impunity for human rights violations must come to an end.
The British delegation also raised concerns over the shrinking democratic space, military presence in the North and constrains on freedom of expression.
Ireland said that no one should be subjected to intimidation or reprisals for cooperating with the investigation on Sri Lanka and it also urged Sri Lanka to constructively cooperate with the probe.
“We welcome the positive measures Sri Lanka has introduced thus far which have contributed to the process of reconciliation on the island. However, we call on Sri Lanka to constructively cooperate with the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka. This cooperation entails allowing the team to collect and document victims’ testimonies and the accounts of survivors, witnesses and alleged perpetrators. No one should be subjected to intimidation or reprisals for cooperating with this investigation. In this regard, we recall this Council’s Resolution 24/24 which urges states to prevent and refrain from all acts of intimidation or reprisals against those who seek to cooperate or have cooperated with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights, or who have provided testimony or information to them,” the Ireland delegation to the Council said in its statement with regard to Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, in the US, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was scheduled to meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi yesterday.
The President had already met heads of Governments from several other countries on the sidelines of the UNGA and obtained their support for Sri Lanka.
The Government published its last update on implementation of the LLRC recommendations in July. It reported on further progress in implementing the national trilingual language policy, social cohesion initiatives, resettlement of IDPs, release of detainees, and reconstruction and development activities in the northern and eastern provinces.
One important initiative was the establishment of a Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate cases of abduction and disappearance between January 1983 and May 2009 of persons resident in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The mandate of the Commission has been extended to 25 February 2015 and broadened to include investigations into the adherence of both Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE to principles of international humanitarian law.
The President also invited six international experts to act as an advisory group to the Commission, although at this time the nature of their involvement it not yet clear. Independent observers have, however, raised concerns with the line of questioning by the commissioners and counsel, the quality of translation services, and the lack of counselling support for victims. Families of the disappeared have also reported on harassment and pressure by police, military and intelligence prior to and at the time of the hearings.
This Council had requested the Government to publish the reports of other domestic investigations. This has not yet happened, nor has there been any further outcome in other emblematic cases reported by the former High Commissioner.
New mass grave sites have continued to be discovered, but exhumations and investigations have proceeded slowly.
Meanwhile, OHCHR has set up a dedicated team to carry out the comprehensive investigation mandated by the Human Rights Council.
As you know, H.E. Mr Martti Ahtisaari, Ms Silvia Cartwright and Ms Asma Jahangir have been invited to play an advisory role to the OHCHR team. They met with the OHCHR team earlier this month to review the methodology and progress in the investigation, and also consulted a coordinating group of Special Procedures mandate-holders.
On 5 July, the Minister of External Affairs of Sri Lanka informed High Commissioner Pillay that the Government “categorically and unreservedly rejected the resolution 25/1 on Sri Lanka and would not engage in any related process”. The High Commissioner met the Minister of External Affairs in New York this week, who indicated nevertheless that cooperation with OHCHR and the Council will continue. We very much regret the Government’s position on the resolution and encourage it to keep its channels open.
Indeed, this investigation is a unique opportunity to establish an accurate record of patterns of human rights violations and related crimes alleged to have been committed by both sides during the latter period of the conflict.
In this context, the ongoing campaign of threats, harassment, intimidation and reprisals by both state and non-state actors since March against civil society groups, human rights defenders and victims’ organisations, including those engaging with the international inquiry, is deplorable. On 4 August, in Colombo, a private meeting of civil society actors, the diplomatic community and families of the disappeared was disrupted by protestors (including Buddhist monks), reportedly representing families of missing armed service personnel. And during a security operation in March, some human rights defenders were detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act on suspicion of engagement with former LTTE cadres.
This climate of intimidation and threat constitutes a real challenge for the investigation mandated by the Human Rights Council. It also undermines the prospects for Sri Lanka’s own domestic investigations, where witness and victim protection has long been a major concern. I note in this regard that the Government submitted to Parliament the Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Bill in August 2014. OHCHR will carefully study this draft legislation and its compliance with international standards, but already a preliminary analysis raises a number of concerns.
We are also deeply alarmed by the escalation in religious extremism and increasing attacks against Muslim and Christian minorities, largely led by militant Buddhist groups. One of the worst incidents of sectarian violence in Sri Lanka’s recent history occurred last June, in the town of Aluthgama. No prosecutions of those responsible have taken place to date. I urge the Government to ensure strong action against the individuals responsible for such attacks and to send signals of its commitment to protect minority communities.
Notwithstanding the commendable progress the Government has made in resettlement and reconstruction, a more fundamental and far-reaching accountability process which addresses both past and ongoing violations, is indispensable for Sri Lankans to come to terms with their past – to end impunity, to achieve reconciliation between communities, and to strengthen the rule of law. I therefore appeal once again to the authorities to cooperate fully with the investigation, as well as with the relevant Special Procedures, in the long-term interest of all people in Sri Lanka.