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Wednesday July 24th, 2024

UN Report urges global justice, sanctions for Sri Lanka’s disappeared victims

ECONOMYNEXT – A new report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has recommended targeted sanctions on officials responsible for disappearances in Sri Lanka since 1970 and has called for justice outside the country for the families of victims.

Released last week, just before the 15th anniversary of the war’s end and four months ahead of the next UN human rights session where Sri Lanka is likely to face a new resolution, the report has sparked significant attention from rights groups.

The report, titled “Accountability for Enforced Disappearances in Sri Lanka,” urged justice for all Sri Lankan ethnic groups, including Sinhalese and Muslims, during the war and other insurrections, rather than focusing solely on ethnic minority Tamils as in the past.

Sri Lanka ended a 26-year civil war in 2009 with the state military defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who fought for an independent state in the island nation’s North and East. The civil war was rooted in 35 years of discrimination against ethnic minority Tamils by the majority Sinhalese.

Tamil families have been waiting for justice and accountability from successive governments since 2009 to find their relatives disappeared during the final weeks of the conflict, amid failures from global rights bodies, including the UN.

On Saturday (May 18), the island nation witnessed two commemorations: Victory Day, mostly in the southern part of the country, and Remembrance Day for the Tamils in Sri Lanka’s North.

London-based rights group Amnesty International has estimated the number of disappeared victims in Sri Lanka between 60,000 and 100,000, although the Sri Lankan government has repeatedly disputed these figures. There is no credible numbers recorded by the government.

“Impunity remains entrenched,” the OHCHR said in its report, expressing dissatisfaction with the Sri Lankan government’s measures over the last 15 years.

“Notwithstanding steps such as the criminalization of enforced disappearances and the establishment of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and the Office for Reparations, these have not translated into concrete results that would satisfy victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-recurrence.”

UN investigations have found credible evidence of crimes under international law and other violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed by both sides of the conflict.

The government has strongly and repeatedly rejected such allegations, and there has been little to no independent or impartial national inquiry into these serious crimes.

The OHCHR said the latest report was prepared with “a series of consultations with victims exploring the impacts of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka and their perspectives on accountability.”

It held bilateral interviews with 39 victims and convened focus groups involving 43 victims, with a higher ratio of women to compile the report.

TARGETED SANCTIONS

A limited number of Western nations have already imposed targeted sanctions, including travel bans for some Sri Lankan political and military leaders, after finding credible information about human rights violations, the OHCHR said.

The United States has imposed a travel ban on former Army Chief Shavendra Silva and his immediate family members, Navy intelligence officer Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi, Army Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake, army officer Prabath Bulathwatta, and former Navy chief Wasantha Karannagoda, citing human rights violations, the report said.

Canada last year imposed financial sanctions to freeze the assets of former Sri Lankan presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, along with Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi and Sunil Ratnayake, citing rights abuses.

Human rights analysts say some Sri Lankan political and military leaders are still unaware that they have been blacklisted by Western nations for rights abuses and will only become aware of such measures when they request visas from these countries.

“Consider further targeted sanctions, consistent with international law, against those who are credibly alleged to have been responsible for enforced disappearances and other gross violations and abuses of international human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law,” the OHCHR said.

The Rajapaksas and military leaders have denied any wrongdoing, though successive governments have rejected an independent international investigation into alleged human rights violations, citing infringement on the country’s sovereignty.

Alan Keenan, London-based International Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka Senior Analyst, said the latest report broadens the time horizon to include the disappearances of Sinhala youth during the insurrections led by Marxist group Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) as well.

“It’s an issue that all Sri Lankans have been affected by, which goes to the core of the legal system and the failure of multiple governments, basically every government since the 1970s, to deal with,” Keenan told EconomyNext.

“So I think this report is important in that it reminds everybody in the international community and in Sri Lanka of the depth of the problem that Sri Lanka faces in terms of its lack of effective institutions of the rule of law and the many decades of impunity for the most serious violations of international human rights law and, during the war, international humanitarian law.”

“What’s also positive is that the range of recommendations in the report potentially benefits all communities—Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims, men, and women, rich and poor.”

He noted that human rights issues are often presented by the government in the media as being anti-Sri Lankan and anti-Sinhala majority, favoring only Tamils, Muslims, Christians, or other minority groups.

“This report shows that acting on accountability, holding people accountable, setting up new institutions to make that possible, bringing out the truth, and reforming and strengthening the institutions of justice and the rule of law is everybody’s issue. It should benefit all communities. That’s what’s most interesting and important about this report.”

INTERNATIONAL JURISDICTION

The OHCHR has urged the international community to engage with Sri Lanka due to an “accountability gap at the domestic level,” with victims urging prosecution in a third State due to “widespread impunity in Sri Lanka.”

Citing examples of some Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) filing legal actions against former Sri Lankan military leaders in Brazil, Australia, Germany, and Switzerland, the OHCHR noted that no state has yet issued an arrest warrant or prosecuted any Sri Lankans suspected of involvement in an enforced disappearance.

“A key stumbling block has been the immunities afforded to persons who remain in high office or have subsequently been appointed to diplomatic posts,” it said.

“Use all potential forms of jurisdiction, including under accepted principles of extraterritorial and universal jurisdiction, to investigate and prosecute crimes under international law committed in Sri Lanka, strengthen coordination in relation to ongoing investigations, and consider support for other avenues of international justice.”

International Crisis Group’s Keenan explained that cases targeting alleged perpetrators in Sri Lanka could also be pursued in other countries.

Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard, who witnessed the Remembrance Day by the Tamils in the final battlefield of Mullivaikkal, said the Sri Lankan government is best placed to provide answers to the victims, though past “domestic mechanisms to establish accountability in the last 15 years have been mere window dressing.”

“UNWARRANTED, PREPOSTEROUS” REPORT

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the UN report, stating that no member country had given a mandate to the OHCHR to compile such a report at a time when Sri Lanka was commemorating the 15th anniversary of the war’s end.

“This is unwarranted,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman told EconomyNext.

“The timing of the release is politically motivated and seems to be targeting the 15th anniversary of the end of the war. The content is unsubstantiated, not credible, and unfounded. It has just interviewed a few victims and targeted our senior officials and military personnel.”

He accused the United Nations Human Rights body of deliberately targeting a small country like Sri Lanka to “draw attention away from human rights violations elsewhere in the world.”

“It has asked to probe disappearances from 1970–2009. This is almost 40 years, covering a substantial period of post-independent Sri Lanka. This is totally preposterous.”

Sri Lanka will respond to the UN Human Rights High Commissioner on the content of the report through its Geneva envoy, he said.

Sri Lanka has admitted to some human rights violations but has strongly rejected any foreign probes into the allegations. Despite the island nation’s protest, the UN rights body has passed two resolutions to conduct an independent investigation with its own officials. (Colombo/May 21/2024)

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Sri Lanka presidential candidate cash deposits not updated in 43 years: MP

MP Dullas Alahapperuma

ECONOMYNEXT — The cash deposits Sri Lanka’s presidential candidates are required to pay have not been revised in 43 years, opposition MP Dullas Alahapperuma said, calling for a significant increase in order to save money and to prevent proxy candidates.

Alahapperuma told parliament on Wednesday July 24 that, as per the Presidential Elections Act No. 15 of 1981, a candidate nominated by a recognised political party has to deposit only 50,000 rupees while an independent candidate, or a candidate nominated by any other party or by an elector, must pay only 75,000 rupees.

The MP said the cabinet of former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa had approved an amendment to the act to increase these amounts.

“The election commission proposed that this be increased to 2.5 million rupees for political parties and 3 million for independent candidates. This was a pertinent proposal. There were 35 candidates who contested the last election,” he said.

The Act notes that “Where the number of votes polled by any candidate does not exceed one-eighth of the total number of votes polled at the election, the deposit made in respect of such candidate shall be declared forfeit and shall be transferred by the Commissioner from the deposit account to the Consolidated Fund, and in every other case the deposit shall be returned to the person who made the deposit, as soon as may be after the result of the election is declared.”

At the 2019 presidential election, said Alahapperuma, the deposits made by all candidates besides the top two contenders were transferred to the Consolidated fund.

“The number of candidates might be 80 or 85 this election. Many candidates have no basis for contesting, and it costs a vast sum of money to print ballots and other expenses, not to mention the time consumed for counting votes. This is not just to prevent proxy parties from contesting but also to save a lot of national wealth,” he said.

Leader of the House Susil Premajayantha responding to Alahapperuma said, however, that it would not be possible to pass the proposed amendment in time for the 2024 presidential election.

“The election commission made this proposal some time ago. But we know that to gazette a bill, we need to first draft the bill, the cabinet has to decide on it, send it back to the Legal Draftsman, and receive clearance from the Attorney General. So there is no time to bring this amendment for the upcoming presidential election. You can propose it at the next one,” he said. (Colombo/Jul24/2024)

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Sri Lanka deaf driver license project to be expanded islandwide

ECONOMYNEXT – A pilot project that allowed hearing-impaired persons to obtain light-vehicle driving licenses has been successful and will be rolled out island-wide, Sri Lanka’s Motor Traffic Department said.

The project was implemented in the Gampaha District initially where 50 licenses were provided to drivers who qualified.

The project was expanded to the Kurunegala District, where 150 drivers obtained licences. The drivers were given a probation period.

“Actually, this was a very successful project. It has been almost a year and we haven’t received a single complaint yet,” Motor Traffic Department Commissioner – Driving Licence Wasantha Ariyarathna told reporters on Wednesday.

“We plan to roll it out to all 25 districts islandwide.”

The issuance of driver’s licenses to hearing impaired persons will be done on a bi-annual renewal basis.
(Colombo/Jul24/2024)

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Sri Lanka election commission to announce poll date before weekend

File photo of polling booth

ECONOMYNEXT — Sri Lanka’s Election Commission will announce the date of the election before the end of this week, commission chairman R M L Ratnayake told a private news network.

Ratnayake told the privately owned NewsFirst Wednesday July 24 morning that the gazette notification in this regard would be published before the weekend.

“As I stated before, we will announce the date before the end of this week. There is no backtracking at all. We have selected a date that is nearest and most suitable after September 17 for the election,” he said.

Ratnayake told the media at a press conference on July 16 that the commission will publish the notice announcing nomination and election dates before the end of July.

“Our first task is to publish the notice on the election. From the day the notice is published, nominations have to be accepted between 16 and 21 days. The election should be held within four to six weeks of from the day of accepting nominations,” said Ratnayake.

“The candidates must have enough time to do their campaigns after handing over nominations. Time is also needed to cast postal votes and carry out other duties. The election date should also be convenient for the voters. For the acceptance of nominations, we have to consider cultural factors unique to a country like Sri Lanka. Some people consider things like the Rahu period. So we have to find a date that is suitable for everyone,” he said.

Ratnayake said the election commission intends to issue the notice before the end of July.

“This notice will contain the nominations date and the election date. We plan to then hold the election on the most suitable day after September 17.

“Some people had suggested that we have delayed this to end July to the benefit of one party or another. I want to point out that we can delay we can extend it to August 20 if needed,” he said. (Colombo/Jul24/2024)

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