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Thursday December 2nd, 2021
Human Rights

Under pressure, Sri Lanka takes baby steps to address international rights concerns

Justice Minister Ali Sabry ceremoniously launching the ONUR website

ECONOMYNEXT- Facing threats of losing a trade concession that has kept Sri Lanka key export sectors alive and possible targeted sanctions, the country is moving forward with some steps to address some concerns over rights abuses and undermining of rule of law.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration had vowed not to give into the demands of Western nations, EU, and United Nations to address alleged human rights violations in the past, citing the allegations are biased, based on uncorroborated facts, and misleading Tamil diaspora.

However, since the European parliament adopted a resolution to consider withdrawing over 500 million US dollar worth trade concession, the government has taken a step back on its stance.

The European parliament’s key demand was to repeal Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), citing the legislation has been systematically used for arbitrary arrests and the detention of Muslims and minority groups in Sri Lanka.

Shani Abeysekara, the former director of the Criminal Investigation Department who was detained for more than 10 months, has also been granted bail following a court order.

The island nation is under pressure to deliver on the past demands ahead of the next UN Human Right Council session next month.

A Geneva resolution in March allowed the United Nations “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.”

Economic Woes

However, Sri Lanka’s stubbornness to deny any post-war reconciliation could hit the $81 billion economy, which is already in a dire state and facing a possible risk of sovereign default.

It’s affordability of losing the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) is sharply declining as the island nation is struggling with a foreign exchange crisis and depleted reserves.

Two months after the UN resolution this year, President Rajapaksa government decided to appoint former war-time police chief Jayantha Wickramaratne as a member of the independent Office of Missing Persons (OMP).

The move raised question over the independence of the OMP and analysts saw the government decision as a move to send a message to the UN and other international community who are demanding to address human rights violations.

On Friday (20), Justice Minister Ali Sabry launched a new website of the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation with an aim to promote unity and reconciliation among the citizens,

Early this week, the Cabinet approved a proposal by the justice minister Ali Sabry “for the policies and guidelines prepared” by the Office for Reparation, “for the implementation of those policies and guidelines collectively with the relevant line ministries.”

“Any serious attempt to address the financial needs of the tens of thousands of families most directly affected by the war is to be welcomed,” Alan Keenan, International Crisis Group’s Senior Consultant on Sri Lanka told EconomyNext.

“Still, it is hard to take much encouragement from the cabinet decision…when the government has yet to acknowledge any responsibility for the harms that war-affected citizens suffered.”

“It is hard not to think that the government’s recent flurry of small gestures…. is a matter of public relations directed at western governments and the UN Human Rights Council, rather than a genuine attempt to facilitate justice and inter-ethnic reconciliation.”

Not Convinced

Ambika Satkunanathan, a former Sri Lankan human rights commissioner said any move to provide reparations should not be viewed in isolation but as part of the process of dealing with the past, which first requires acknowledgment that human rights and humanitarian law violations took place.

“This government refuses to do that. A couple of weeks ago the Foreign Minister stated that most of those who were disappeared are living abroad, thereby trivialising and denying the demands of survivors and families of victims for truth and justice,” she said.

“This appears to be a farcical exercise aimed at appeasing the international community to retain GSP plus and deal with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ oral update on Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council session in September.”

Diplomats have said individual countries are likely to impose target travel sanctions on those officials who were alleged to have named in human rights violations.

There have also been charges that the government is actively undermining the judiciary and criminal justice system after terminating a series of well-advanced police investigations and courts cases into abductions and political killings.

However, the government has repeatedly denied the allegation and said it never interferes in both police and judiciary.

With the COVID-19 pandemic had weakened the economy further, President Rajapaksa’s government need more global allies apart from China to keep the country’s economy growing.

Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa since assumed office has been meeting most of the foreign envoys to put the country’s economy on track.

However it is not clear whether the measures are enough to alleviate international pressure. (Colombo/Aug20/2021)

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