The departure of the United States from the UN Human Rights Council is a regrettable blow to a global institution which has been mandated to protect and uphold human rights throughout the world including Sri Lanka. In 2015, Sri Lanka together with the US and several other member countries of the UNHRC, co-sponsored a resolution that called upon Sri Lanka to enter into a process of transitional justice. Despite the US pullout from the UNHRC, the US embassy in Sri Lanka has assured that it will continue to assist Sri Lanka to fulfil its international commitments to advance the cause of reconciliation and lasting peace for all Sri Lankans.
The political space opened up by the government over the past three years has enabled political parties and civil society to engage in public activities without restriction. The National Peace Council is concerned that this political space is being utilized most fully by ethnic nationalists. This has increased the divisions in society, as manifested in the public activities that commemorated the last day of the war on May 18.
The inaction of government due to the ongoing political crisis involving the coalition partners in the national unity government continues to erode public confidence in its problem solving capacities. This concern is especially marked in regard to the transitional justice process. So far only the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), which is one of the four transitional justice mechanisms promised in October 2015 has been established.
The National Peace Council welcomes the decision of Minister of National Coexistence, Dialogue and Official Languages Mano Ganesan to withdraw proposed amendments to the Voluntary Social Service Organizations (Registration and Supervision) Act, No. 31 of 1980 following representations made to him by over 130 civil society organizations. The Minister took this decision at a meeting held with representatives of these CSOs presided over by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. At this meeting the Prime Minister reassured those present that the government’s intention was not to control NGO work or make civil society dependent on the government. He requested the CSOs present to nominate seven members who could meet with the government and develop a sustainable solution that would protect national interests and the independence of civil society.
Sri Lanka is still in a post-war phase in which the wounds and traumas of the past three decades of violence and war have still not been healed. The violence directed against Muslim-owned shops, mosques and vehicles in Ampara is a continuation of a process of fueling tension, suspicion and hatred between communities. The anti-Muslim propaganda focuses on the growth of the Muslim population and its expansion into areas inhabited primarily by members of other communities. Those who foment violence against the Muslim community are citing unfounded allegations of introducing birth control and other drugs into food packets.
Sri Lanka’s commitment to human rights is being debated in Geneva at the 37th session of the Human Rights Council, which meets in Geneva from 26 February to 23 March 2018. There is a considerable amount of international dissatisfaction with the slow pace of progress due to the long delay in setting up the reconciliation mechanisms, such as the Office of Missing Persons, Office of Reparations, Truth Commission and Special Judicial Mechanism.
Sri Lanka currently has a government of national unity comprising the two largest political parties, the UNP and SLFP, which have hitherto been rivals for political power. As can be expected the forthcoming local government elections have aggravated the tensions between them. It is customary that those who seek to win an election engage in boosting their own images and running down their rivals. The most recent cause for a spike in tensions came with President Maithripala Sirisena’s application to the Supreme Court to obtain its opinion on the duration of his term of office. This action was taken in the midst of public disaffection with the government’s handling of the Central Bank bond scam case.
Sri Lanka has recently acceded to the Optional Protocol on the Convention against Torture that allows for greater international scrutiny of a country’s detention facilities and the Ottawa Treaty to ban landmines. Previous Sri Lankan governments had resisted acceding to these international instruments on the grounds of national security even while agreeing to their content in principle. The National Peace Council welcomes the government decision to accept the challenge of governance in the future according to international standards.
The Associated Press (AP) has carried a news story that gives a graphic account of torture practices in Sri Lanka that allegedly continue to this day. This story which has been carried by newspapers and media outlets throughout the world, including the New York Times, gives accounts of some 50 men who claim they were tortured and raped on multiple occasions and are seeking asylum in foreign countries. What is particularly disturbing about the current allegations is that the torture is alleged to have occurred during the period of the present government which was voted into power on a platform of good governance and respect for human rights. Earlier this year, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter terrorism, Ben Emmerson said that Sri Lanka’s tolerance of torture, was a “stain on the country’s international reputation”.
The war crimes cases registered against former army commander General Jagath Jayasuriya in five South American countries even while he was Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Brazil would alert the government that it needs to take remedial action without further delay. Although the former army commander had diplomatic immunity, international law also states that those accused of war crimes are subject to universal jurisdiction. Last week at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, expressed his concern over the slow pace of reforms in Sri Lanka and said the absence of action on accountability meant exercising universal jurisdiction would become even more necessary.