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“We do not need to be told. We do not need to be taught”: Sri Lanka at the 22nd UNHRC, Geneva

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  • March 01, 2013

    Almost four years since the end of the war, the situation in Sri Lanka is far from a just peace. With the commencing of the 22nd United Human Rights Council Sessions in Geneva this week, Sri Lanka has indeed much to be worried about.

    March 22, 2012, saw the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) finally having to give way to international pressure as the UNHRC passed a US-led resolution titled “Promoting Accountability and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka”.1 This resolution, which was passed with a majority of 24 votes, highlighted 9 major areas of reform, called upon the GoSL to fulfil its legal obligations towards justice and accountability and to provide a “comprehensive action plan” to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC) – the commission of inquiry that GOSL set up to investigate the events between the February 2002 ceasefire with the LTTE and the end of the conflict in May 2009.

    The GoSL’s response to the provision of establishing a comprehensive action plan was to put together a National Action Plan (NAP) that set out to implement the recommendations made by the LLRC. This NAP is far from adequate and though it attempts to implement the HRC’s March 2012 Resolution, it sets out unreasonable timelines and is selective in the choice of recommendations it chooses to implement. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her February 2013 report to the Council reaffirms this when she states: “To date, the government has made commitments on only selected recommendations of the Commission, and has not adequately engaged civil society in support of a more consultative and inclusive reconciliation process.”2 She adds that despite the resettlement of over 400,000 displaced by the war and large scale projects, “considerable work lies ahead in the areas of justice, reconciliation and resumption of livelihoods.”3

    In March 2013, Sri Lanka is due to come up for discussion again before the Council. This time, the Council will have before it two official documents: the UN High Commissioner’s devastating report and the Universal Periodic Report from November 2012. This will add to the equally incriminatory Darusman Report4 (also known as Report of the Secretary General Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka) and the Report of the United Nations Internal Review Panel.5 With Sri Lanka no longer being a member of the Council and having no voting power, it will have to confront a powerful block of countries with the United States still a voting member in the lead and Poland presiding.

    It is against this backdrop that the second US-led resolution is going to be introduced. Draft copies of the resolution that have been circulating reveal calls upon the GoSL to report on its efforts to investigate war crimes and on relations with Tamils in the country. It also calls on the GoSL to “credibly investigate widespread allegations of extra-judicial killings” and to “[provide] unfettered access...[to] Special Rapporteurs on independence of judges and lawyers; torture; human rights defenders”. It also refers to the failure of the GoSL to fulfil its public commitments, including on devolution of political authority to provinces.6 The resolution also refers to the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake which, according to Navi Pillay, “...runs contrary to achieving accountability and reconciliation”.7

    Sri Lanka needs to be ready to face what may well be a brutal yet well deserved assault. The UN reports are not the only documents that build a strong and credible case against the GoSL. A British television broadcaster, Channel 4, is set to air a new documentary titled “No Fire Zone”, which suggests that 12 year old Balachandran Prabhakaran, son of the LTTE leader, was murdered while in custody of the Sri Lankan forces.8 A Human Rights Watch report titled “We Will Teach You a Lesson” publishes testimony from victims, doctors and others who describe how Sri Lankan security forces use violence, torture, arbitrary detention and rape against Tamils in custody.9 The International Crisis Group’s new report “Sri Lanka’s Authoritarian Turn: The Need for International Action” highlights how the dismantling of the independent judiciary and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s authoritarian rule will inevitably feed the already growing ethnic tension resulting from the absence of power sharing and the denial of minority rights.10

    Mahinda Samarasinghe, Presidential Envoy on Human Rights, addressing the High Level Segment of the UNHRC Session on February 27 adopted a highly defensive mode. He referred to the March 2012 Resolution as “unnecessary, unwarranted and unfair” and insisted that “...the Government’s primary responsibility [was] to resolve domestic issues.”11 He referred to the new US-sponsored Resolution to be introduced and stated that “unwarranted internationalization of such issues would only undermine the local reconciliation process in Sri Lanka; a process that is still ongoing, impacting adversely on the people in the former conflict-affected areas in their efforts to reap the dividends of peace.”12

    India is yet to officially state its stand on the resolution. The situation remains the same as last year, when India did not officially make its position clear until the last moment and, when it did, spoiled the efficacy of the resolution by insisting that it be watered down.13 This year, India needs to be reminded that the situation in Sri Lanka has drastically deteriorated: the GoSL has weakened democracy, dismantled the judiciary and not followed through on any of the areas of reform that were called for last year. Most importantly, attention needs to be drawn towards Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Independence Day speech of February 4, 2013, which seems to reject greater autonomy to the Tamils by suggesting that there will be no devolution to the provinces. In Rajapaksa’s own words, “When the people live together in unity, there are no racial or religious differences. Therefore, it is not practical for this country to have different administrations based on ethnicity. The solution is to live together in this country with equal rights for all communities.”14 This goes against the 13th amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution, the constitutional chapter that deals with devolution of power. This is the reality of post-war Sri Lanka and it is this reality that India, and other countries with voting power, need to address.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.