Human Rights Council Updated on Regime’s Abuses

Human Rights Council Updated on Regime’s Abuses

SAVITRI HENSMAN

 03/07/2024

“Sustainable peace and reconciliation will not be achieved in Sri Lanka with regressive laws and authoritarian approaches, which will only serve to perpetuate the human rights concerns of the past,” said Volker Türk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on March 1, 2024.

He was updating the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on the regime’s failure, yet again, to bring an end to abuses and address past violations. “It is only through addressing the root causes of the country’s conflict and economic crisis, and ensuring accountability, that Sri Lanka will be able to enhance its prospects of achieving genuine reconciliation and sustainable peace and development,” he emphasised.

As usual, the government brushed off international criticism, while paying even less heed to the numerous people in Sri Lanka dissatisfied at the denial of basic rights to them and their families. Ministers had made clear their contempt for the constitution and rule of law by choosing, as police chief, a man who had committed a horrific crime and pushing through legislation they had been warned was unlawful. Yet those in charge cannot rely on being able to avoid accountability on an ongoing basis, especially when the experience of so many ordinary citizens is harshly different from the rosy picture painted by top politicians.

Past errors uncorrected, new suffering inflicted 

At the 55th session of the UNHRC, being held from February 26 to April 5, 2024, the UN High Commissioner had been asked to provide an oral update on the state’s progress on a range of human rights concerns identified in earlier resolutions. In the run up, people and groups in Sri Lanka and outside had expressed dismay at a situation which was in some ways getting even worse, including repressive new laws being pushed through despite strong objections. Human Rights Watch summarised a range of concerns including damagingly repressive legislation.

Even the courts and official bodies could be overridden when questioning attempts by President Ranil Wickremesinghe and his inner circle to exercise almost unbounded power. In February, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) pointed out that “in the Supreme Court’s Determination on the Online Safety Bill, the Court found that over thirty clauses in the Bill and certain omissions in the Bill were inconsistent with the Sri Lankan Constitution. The Court accordingly determined that the Bill could only be enacted by Parliament with a special majority. However, the Court added that, if all the amendments recommended by Court were introduced to the Bill during the Committee Stage of Parliament, the Bill could be enacted by Parliament with a simple majority…

“Having carefully reviewed the Online Safety Act, the Commission observed that several sections and observed that several sections and omissions in the Act appear to be non-compliant with the Supreme Court’s Determination on the Online Safety Bill… the failure to ensure full compliance with the Court’s determination may give occasion to serious concerns over whether the Act, in its current form, received the requisite number of votes in Parliament.”

Even more disturbingly, while some petty offenders were jailed, a man guilty of a horrific crime was chosen to head the police. Deshabandu Tennakoon had earlier been blamed by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the 2019 Easter Attacks for failing to prevent these and recommended disciplinary action against him, yet he remained in a senior position as complaints against him mounted, including for threats and violence. In December, the Supreme Court found he and fellow officers had cruelly tortured helpless detainees in violation of the constitution. HRCSL urged that the torturers be prosecuted.

Yet on February 26, as the UNHRC began its gathering, he was appointed as the new Inspector General of Police. Less spectacularly, sizeable numbers of children went hungry amidst stark inequalities in wealth, a violation of economic rights while other families continued to wait for answers about what happened to loved ones who disappeared at the hands of the state.

However, in a pre-recorded video statement, on February 27 Foreign Minister Ali Sabry presented an upbeat take on the national situation as he addressed the UNHRC. He “reiterated Sri Lanka’s rejection of the HRC resolutions 46/1 and 51/1 and the external evidence gathering mechanism established by these resolutions” while claiming “tangible progress made by the country with regard to economic recovery, national unity and reconciliation and added that the cornerstone of this recovery lies in pragmatic policy decisions that prioritise the country’s welfare over short term political gains. The significant progress achieved in this regard has been recognized and welcomed both locally and internationally,” he stated.

On March 1 (when an photograph was published of Ranil Wickremesinghe posing with his new IGP Deshabandu Tennakoon, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights took a more sober view of the situation. “Two years ago, tens of thousands of Sri Lankans took to the streets demanding deep democratic reforms and accountability for economic mismanagement and corruption, which resulted in the most severe socio-economic crisis in a generation. There was great hope that the country would embark upon a long overdue transformation that would benefit all its communities,” he said.

Yet “While the Government has taken important steps to stabilize the economy, I am concerned by the introduction of new or proposed laws with potentially far-reaching impact on fundamental rights and freedoms, the rule of law and democratic governance.”

He mentioned the Online Safety Act, the Anti-Terrorism Bill, the Electronic Media Broadcasting Authority Bill and the NGO Supervision and Registration Bill, “which variously strengthen the executive, grant broad powers to the security forces, and severely restrict rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression, impacting not only on civic space but the business environment.”

The plight of the badly off was another concern as “the disastrous consequences of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis continue to bite deeply, particularly for the most marginalised. Poverty rose further to an estimated 27.9% last year. Nearly two-thirds of households across the country have seen their monthly incomes decrease since March 2022, while food, transportation, health and education costs continue to rise” He appealed “for Sri Lanka to be given the fiscal space and support by international financial institutions and creditors to uphold economic, social and cultural rights.”

He drew attention to the legacy of the civil war, as “Tens of thousands of families of the disappeared are still looking for their loved ones and face intimidation, arrests and violence in their search. Land disputes continue to escalate in the north and east of the country impacting on people’s livelihoods. Provincial Councils and local government bodies, that promised a measure of devolution, are not currently constituted.” Victims of the Easter Sunday bombings were also still waiting for truth and justice.

While the government sought to create a Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation, “the environment for a credible truth-seeking process remains absent. My Office continues to receive allegations of surveillance, harassment and arrests by security forces of civil society representatives, journalists and victims, as well as of people who have been involved in organising commemoration events for war victims.

“I remain deeply concerned about recurring, credible accounts received by my Office of abductions, unlawful detention and torture, including sexual violence, by the Sri Lankan police and security forces, some of which allegedly took place in 2023, mainly in the north and east of the country. Last week, the appointment of a new Inspector General of Police was confirmed, despite the Supreme Court’s finding that he was responsible for torture of an individual in 2010.”

His office continued to gather evidence. As well as urging the government “immediately to reverse this trend and undertake credible accountability measures to investigate and prosecute past and present human rights violations and economic crimes”, he urged member states “to continue to reinforce these efforts, including through appropriate use of universal and extra-territorial jurisdiction and targeted measures against credibly-alleged perpetrators of serious human rights violations and abuses.”

Disagreement and support

Unsurprisingly the regime rejected the criticism, in a statement read out by Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka in Geneva Himalee Arunatilaka. To overcome recent challenges, the government “prioritised economic recovery and reconciliation objectives, while ensuring that the country’s democratic traditions and institutions remained stable at all times,” she claimed unconvincingly. “Despite severe constraints, our objectives remain steadfast and unwavering towards expediting the ongoing efforts for strengthening the foundation of national unity, post-conflict reconciliation and human rights. Sri Lanka is committed to pursuing progress through already established domestic mechanisms.”

She defended the new laws and state’s track record among minorities in the North and East and reinforced the government’s rejection of the UNHRC resolutions on Sri Lanka and “the external evidence-gathering mechanism that stems from these 2 divisive and intrusive resolutions.”

She implied that Sri Lanka and other countries in the global South were being picked on unfairly while worse injustices were allowed to pass. “We cannot condone the continuing double standards of some sectors that provide no tangible relief to the grievances of people but only contribute to the politicisation of human rights. The very existence of the people in Gaza is under threat. Where are the resolutions and where are the accountability projects?” she asked rhetorically.

In reality, UN officials and mechanisms, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, had been working intensively to try to halt the Israeli government’s onslaught on Palestinians in Gaza – while also denouncing Hamas atrocities – and bring relief to the victims. Far more attention and resources had been focused on the plight of people there, the subject of various resolutions, than on Sri Lanka. The UN’s International Court of Justice had issued a ground breaking ruling warning there was a credible risk of genocide, then warned that action in the Gaza strip and especially Rafah “would exponentially increase what is already a humanitarian nightmare with untold regional consequences”, again demanding that civilians be kept safe. UN senior staff had been put under heavy pressure for their stance, while those on the ground had died in sizeable numbers while caring for civilians at risk.

The day before he gave an update on Sri Lanka, Volker Türk had denounced the “carnage” in Gaza, including “the brutality of the Israeli response; the unprecedented level of killing and maiming of civilians in Gaza, including UN staff and journalists; the catastrophic humanitarian crisis caused by restrictions on humanitarian aid; the displacement of at least three-quarters of the population, often multiple times; the massive destruction of hospitals and other civilian infrastructure – and in many cases, systematic demolition of entire neighbourhoods.” UN experts followed this up with further strongly-worded condemnations of abuses and demands for an end to these.

Sri Lankan officials’ attempts to make out that somehow they were being picked on while the Israeli state’s actions were overlooked perhaps said more about the regime’s habitual dishonesty, or perhaps disconnection from reality, than about the actual situation. The UN system indeed has many weaknesses, including the ability of a handful of powerful states such as that of Russia and the USA to block some forms of action through Security Council vetoes yet the Sri Lankan regime too has benefited from a less drastic approach at international level than might have been taken.

Sections of the Sri Lankan media supportive of the government’s line took a similar stance to the Foreign Minister and Permanent Representative. Yet internationally as well as on the island itself, many people and organisations reinforced points raised by Volker Türk.

Importantly, the Core Group of states tasked with keeping track of the Sri Lankan situation drew attention to ongoing problems and urged the authorities to address these.

Non-governmental organisations such as Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and Amnesty International of Sri Lankans. These took the sombre view that “Since the High Commissioner’s report on Sri Lanka to the Council in September, the situation in the country has further deteriorated.” They urged that “In the absence of any prospect of accountability through domestic mechanisms and ongoing violations, it is imperative that Council during its September session, at minimum, extends and strengthens the Sri Lanka Accountability Project and continues enhanced scrutiny and reporting on the situation by the High Commissioner.”

Civicus has outlined alarming levels of civil rights violations, with recent arrests of human rights defenders and attacks on peaceful protesters in the recent months.

It is questionable how long Sri Lanka’s rulers can continue to avoid being held to account, especially since threats, violence and accusations have failed to stamp out dissent at home. International concerns adds to the pressure to respect rights and restore freedoms which have been denied and relieve unnecessary suffering arising from injustice.

About editor 3016 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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