ECONOMYNEXT – The United Nations Human Rights chief on Monday raised concerns over Sri Lanka’s conduct over addressing past alleged human rights violations and said the world body will initiate maximum information gathering this year over said violations.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet received a mandate in March to collect evidence of crimes alleged to have been committed in Sri Lanka’s long civil war which ended in 2009 with the defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers and an upsurge of civilian deaths.
The resolution allows the UN “to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence, and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings.”
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s administration initially said it would not cooperate with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), but the ruling nationalist Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has softened its stance after the European parliament also threatened to withdraw a trade concession amid the prospect of a recession and risk of sovereign default.
Bachelet on Monday addressing the 48th session of the UNHRC noted President Rajapaksa’s June statement in which he said the government is “committed to work with the UN to ensure accountability” and will implement “necessary institutional reforms.”
“I look forward to seeing concrete actions to this effect – in line with the recommendations that have been made in our reports and by various human rights mechanisms – and my Office stands ready to engage,” Bachelet said in her statement.
She listed a number of concerns over human rights in Sri Lanka, particularly under the government since Rajapaksa became the president in 2019.
“Against this backdrop, my office’s work to implement the accountability-related aspects of (March) Resolution 46/1 has begun, pending recruitment of a start-up team,” Bachelet said.
“We have developed an information and evidence repository with nearly 120,000 individual items already held by the UN, and we will initiate as much information-gathering as possible this year.”
Her oral update was delivered days after the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), a rights group, documented alleged abuses in Sri Lanka and gave details in its report of 15 members of the minority Tamil community, who said they were beaten, burnt, suffocated and sexually assaulted by authorities over the past two years.
Bachelet said the current social, economic and governance challenges faced by Sri Lanka indicate the corrosive impact that militarisation and the lack of accountability continue to have on fundamental rights, civic space, democratic institutions, social cohesion and sustainable development.
She also criticised recently passed emergency regulations on essential food supply and said they are “very broad and may further expand the role of the military in civilian functions”.
Release Hejaaz, Ahnaf
Bachelet raised concerns over arrest and detain people and developments in judicial proceedings in a number of emblematic human rights cases while stating that the government has reaffirmed its intention to revisit “problematic Prevention of Terrorism Act”.
“However, I am deeply concerned about the continued use of the Act to arrest and detain people,” she said.
“Lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah has now been detained for 16 months under the Act without credible evidence presented before a court.”
“Likewise, Ahnaf Jazeem, a teacher and poet, has been detained without charge since May 2020.”
“I urge an immediate moratorium on the use of the Act, and that a clear timeline be set for its comprehensive review or repeal.”
The government has said Hizbullah is allegedly has played a role in the Easter Sunday attach, which killed 269 people when Islamist militants targeted three luxury hotels in Colombo and three churches across the country.
With regard to the recent past, the UN human rights chief said human rights abuses are growing with continued surveillance, intimidation and judicial harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and families of the disappeared.
She also said such human rights abuses have “broadened to a wider spectrum of students, academics, medical professionals and religious leaders critical of government policies”.
“Several peaceful protests and commemorations have been met with excessive use of force and the arrest or detention of demonstrators in quarantine centres,” Bachelet said.
The government of Sri Lanka has said it has never used excess force over protestors, but local media have reported many protestors who agitated against a defence university bill were arrested by the police in an uncivil way.
In her speech, Bachelet raised concerns over developments in judicial proceedings in a number of emblematic human rights cases including the Attorney General’s decision not to proceed with charges against former Navy commander Wasantha Karannagoda in the case of the enforced disappearances of 11 men in 2008 and 2009.
She also raised concerns over the government’s delay to provide a full account of the circumstances that permitted Easter Sunday attacks despite various inquiries, the President’s recent pardoning of convicted murderer and a former MP Duminda Silva, further deaths in police custody and in the context of police encounters with alleged drug criminal gangs.
Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the head of Sri Lanka’s Catholic church, has repeatedly said that the investigation into the Easter Sunday blasts was not being conducted properly. He has said he believes the real conspirators are still at large and has hinted at alleged attempts to shield the masterminds.
The cardinal last week said the church has already informed Vatican authorities as it was forced to take up the issue internationally and the matter is expected to be raised at the UNHRC meeting in Geneva.
President Rajapaksa’s government had denied any inadequacy in the investigations into the attacks.
The SLPP has said Silva, the former monitoring MP of the defence ministry when President Rajapaksa was the defence secretary, was framed by the former government with fabricated evidence.
The ruling party members justified their stance citing a raft of recordings between a former MP who is now jailed for contempt of court and some state officials including a police detective and judicial official.
She said the government actions on National Policy for Reparations, reparation payments and reconciliation programs, and Office of Missing Persons are continuing, “but it needs to inspire confidence among victims”.
“I stress again the importance of transparent, victim-centred and gender sensitive approaches, and that reparations programs must be accompanied by broader truth and justice measures.” (Colombo/Sep13/2021)