Sumanthiran, former HRCSL Commissioner, press for int’l intervention
Jaffna District TNA lawmaker M.A. Sumanthiran, PC, has argued that Sri Lanka is incapable and unwilling to deliver justice through domestic mechanisms, and there has to be international pressure. The MP said so at a webinar with former top UN and US officials and Sri Lankan participants called for a strong UNHRC resolution at the 46th sessions scheduled to commence on Feb 22. All panellists warned UN failure on Sri Lanka could spur a worldwide pandemic of impunity.
They emphasised the need to act on the UN High Commissioner’s recommendations
The webinar “Sri Lanka: Quest for Justice, Rule of Law and Democratic Rights”, co-hosted by the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice – New York University, Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice and the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC), held on February 12th attracted more than 3,000 live viewers.
Ambika Satkunanathan, a former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, stressed that threats and intimidation to the civil society had escalated to the point of branding them, terrorists and traitors. She argued that such a government was incapable of honestly addressing the past and the mothers of missing persons would not receive justice in their lifetime.
Charles Petrie, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General, and the author of “the report of the Secretary-General’s Internal Review Panel on UN action in Sri Lanka”, referred to Sri Lanka as a country that never came to terms with its violent past and that only an enlightened leadership in Sri Lanka, which is seriously lacking now, can solve the fundamental problems of the state. He also argued that the UN system recognised its past failures and has good intentions and tools to be effective in promoting human rights and good governance in Sri Lanka. However, he cautioned that the UN is lacking in courage and counting exclusively on it can lead to disappointment and hurt.
Pablo de Greiff, a former UN Special Rapporteur, recalled from his vast experience with Sri Lanka and stressed that Sri Lanka’s problems are deeper than its 2009 failure, and by not complying with its international obligations, Sri Lanka was failing its own citizens.
Why some countries undergo repeated cycles of violence, he argued was well understood, and where Sri Lanka was heading was deeply troubling. He also called for all of the UN High Commissioner’s recommendations, including country-specific measures, to be given serious consideration.
Stephen Rapp, formerly US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice, argued that impunity was contagious citing the emblematic navy abductions where even without politics behind the killings Sri Lanka could not deliver justice. He described the new Commission of Inquiry set up by the government as an effort to obstruct justice and called for the creation of a dedicated capacity to collect and preserve evidence which would be essential when the conditions were right to deliver justice – both through the UN and by country-specific initiatives.
Centre for Policy Alternative’s Bhavani Fonseka, author and activist, claimed to present compelling evidence of democratic backsliding and the erosion of rule of law in the context of the newly enacted 20th Amendment to the constitution. She claimed that the strong executive presidency was resorting to extra-legal measures, including militarized governance, and ruling through Presidential Task Forces.
Ameer Faaiz, Director of International Affairs of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, presented a picture of how anti-Muslim violence escalated in the last decade, argued that the denial of the burial rights of Muslims should be viewed in the context of rising anti-Muslim hatred, and called for increased attention from the UNHRC on religious freedoms of minorities.
Shreen Saroor, a peace and women’s rights activist, claimed how the Prevention of Terrorism Act continued to be used against Muslims, with more than 300 people in detention, and the coordinated efforts to cripple civil society organisations. However, she asserted that the extreme oppression and denial of justice had brought the minority communities together.
The presentations were followed by a lively Q & A session, moderated by Melissa Dring from the NGO Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice – which further illuminated critical challenges facing all Sri Lankans. Issues discussed included:
·Sri Lanka’s failures rooted in the nature of the state
·strengthening institutions with independent Judiciary and Attorney General Department
·the government narrative of no crimes committed during the war totally lacking in credibility
·ensuring accountability and justice for all parties to the conflict
·human rights and justice are neither zero-sum propositions nor the international community targeting Sri Lanka
·coordinated domestic and international effort as a means of crisis prevention
There was consensus among the presenters that Sri Lanka is entering a critical phase where the future for democracy, rule of law and good governance is bleak. The exclusionary and majoritarian thrust of the government will disproportionately affect the minority communities. On its own, Sri Lanka will not deliver on accountability or justice. This is the time for strong international involvement to prevent future violent conflict.
The OHCHR report was welcomed as capturing the failures of Sri Lanka in addressing the past and the emerging crisis situation. Participants called for a strong resolution in the upcoming UNHRC session, which should incorporate the High Commissioner’s recommendations including a strong reporting function for OHCHR on human rights, a dedicated facility to collect and preserve evidence and the application of universal jurisdiction, targeted sanctions, asset freezes and travel bans.
It was argued that international pressure, including economic leverage selectively applied, could be effective. Panellists also spoke of the power of targeted populations coming together to reassert their lost rights in recent weeks. It was proposed that both enlightened local leadership and strong international involvement were crucial to change the trajectory of Sri Lanka from repeated political violence and entrenched impunity.