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.
REFORMULATE 20TH AMENDMENT TO PREVENT UNDERMINING OF DEMOCRACY AND DEVOLUTION
The proposed 20th Amendment to the constitution seeks to amend the law relating to elections to the provincial councils to ensure that these are held on a single day and not on an ad hoc basis. The government has explained that this would lead to a reduction in the costs of elections and give more stability to governance. While the government is entitled to hold these views, and to prioritise these matters, the National Peace Council notes some features of the proposed amendment that contain disturbing elements.
NEW HOPE THAT GOVERNMENT WILL DELIVER ON HUMAN RIGHTS PROMISES
The Office of Missing Persons (OMP) has finally been signed into law by President Maithripala Sirisena. The National Peace Council welcomes this action which has the potential to restore civil society faith in the government. We see a sign of a new beginning that will bring relief to victims and be the start of the healing process that Sri Lanka needs to engage in. The gazetting of the OMP law and its allocation to the Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation comes ten months after the law was first past in Parliament in August 2016. The long delay in moving towards operationalizing the law has been extremely painful to all who have been victims and have lost their loved ones during the war, and even after the war. It has also led to pessimism and cynicism amongst those who wish to see justice being done and the wounds of war being healed.
ALL MUST STAND TOGETHER AGAINST RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM
A multiplicity of racist attacks are erupting in different parts of the country and affecting different ethnic and religious communities. The widespread and systematic attacks against members of the Muslim community are insidious and low profile. They are individual attacks on commercial establishments and mosques that are sometimes reported in the media and sometimes not. It appears that this is a testing ground where extremist groups are testing the space for racism. Violent extremists pose a security threat; it is naturally, yet not exclusively, the responsibility of the government to respond to ensure the safety of all its citizens. This involves the mobilization of law enforcement agencies to enable the state to tackle the root causes of violent extremism, to create societal buy-in across diverse stakeholders toward a common goal, and to demonstrate the respect for both the rule of law and equality of all citizens. The danger is that left unchecked by deterrent governmental action they will lead to a buildup and erupt in an unpredictable way.
CONCERTED EFFORT NEEDED TO PROTECT MUSLIMS FROM VIOLENCE
An alarming number of attacks against Muslim religious places of worship and businesses are being reported countrywide causing economic ruin to many people, hurting their religious sentiment and bringing them dismay and leaving the entire community in fear of life and security. The worsening trend has been going on for several years and has a pattern of repeating after a short lull. It has intensified since April this year with over 20 attacks or attempted attacks being reported from different parts of the country in the past two months. So far no one has been arrested by the police for these crimes. Also, the government has so far failed to take steps to arrest this trend which has been acknowledged by the Minister of Law and Order in Parliament. This is an escalation of the longer-term trend that included the torching of a section of a town in the South of Sri Lanka (Aluthgama) in 2014 in which Muslims live in large numbers.
The court injunction against a commemoration in Mullivaikkal in the North of those who lost their loved ones in the last battle of the war on May 18 highlights a problem that needs resolution. In the South the government commemorated the security forces personnel who lost their lives in the war. The police sought the court order to block the commemorative event organized by a civil society group led by Fr Elil Rajendram that sought to memorialize those who lost their lives in the last battle of the war by placing stones with the names of those who lost their lives. At present the Mullivaikkal area, where the last battle of the war was fought, is without any monument to remember those who died there.