Sri Lanka escapes censure in Geneva

Sri Lanka escaped censure during the opening week of the ongoing 42nd session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva as other issues, including the issue over Jammu and Kashmir, grabbed the attention of the Council.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet did not make any reference to Sri Lanka in her opening statement to the Council on Monday.

Last month, Bachelet had warned that the appointment of Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva as Commander of the Sri Lankan Army is likely to impact Sri Lanka’s ability to continue contributing to UN peacekeeping efforts.

However, despite some expectations, Bachelet did not reiterate her concerns on Silva’s appointment in her opening statement to the Council.

Instead, Bachelet noted concerns on several other countries including India over the situation in Kashmir, saying her office continues to receive reports on the human rights situation on both sides of the line of control.

“I am deeply concerned about the impact of recent actions by the Government of India on the human rights of Kashmiris, including restrictions on internet communications and peaceful assembly and the detention of local political leaders and activists. While I continue to urge the Governments of India and Pakistan to ensure that human rights are respected and protected, I have appealed particularly to India to ease the current lockdowns and curfews to ensure people’s access to basic services and all due process rights are respected for those who have been detained. It is important that the people of Kashmir are consulted and engaged in any decision-making processes that have an impact on their future,” she said on the Kashmir issue.

NGOs take the fight

The little focus placed on Sri Lanka at the session came from the UN Working Group on enforced and involuntary disappearances, human rights groups, and NGOs, and the Sri Lankan delegation itself.

In a statement to the Council, Amnesty International said it was disappointed by recent reports of promotion of military officials suspected of committing crimes under international law.

For example, last month, some navy officers who were charged in connection with the enforced disappearance of 11 youths in 2008 and 2009 were promoted after being released on bail, Amnesty said.

Amnesty International’s Isha Dyfaw said that despite calls for allegations against Major General Shavendra Silva to be investigated, he had been promoted to the position of Sri Lanka Army Commander.

“During the final phase of the conflict in 2009, Major General Silva was the Commander of the 58th Division of the Army, which is alleged to have committed crimes under international law that may amount to crimes against humanity – including enforced disappearances. We call on the Sri Lankan Government to put an end to impunity in Sri Lanka,” Amnesty said.

Other NGOs and human rights groups are set to note their concerns on Sri Lanka at side events scheduled to take place on the sidelines of the main session in Geneva.

NGO sources in Geneva said that they hope to exert pressure on UNHRC member countries to maintain focus on Sri Lanka and hope that some tough statements will be made before the end of the ongoing session.

“This will be the last session for the year at the Council and March next year will be crucial as Sri Lanka is on the agenda. We feel the human rights issue will take a backseat in Sri Lanka till elections are over. So we will push for the international community to maintain pressure,” an NGO source said.

Foreign judges called for

In an extensive report on Sri Lanka submitted to the Council, the UN Working Group on enforced and involuntary disappearances expressed regret that neither a judicial accountability mechanism nor a truth-seeking mechanism had been created in Sri Lanka.

The UN Working Group reiterated the importance of the swift establishment of both mechanisms. With regard to the judicial mechanism, it highlighted the importance of integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and investigators.

While noting that draft legislation on a future truth commission was presented to the Cabinet, it regretted that the draft had not yet been made public or the subject of consultations, and that no information was provided on most recommendations related to the body in relation to the inclusion of civil society, a vetting process for commissioners as well as the Commission’s envisaged resources, capacities, and powers.

The Working Group also raised concerns over allegations of new cases of enforced disappearance of short durations in order to extract bribes. The Working Group called on the Government to also urgently investigate these cases and prosecute those responsible.

The Working Group noted that 10 years on from the end of the civil war, there still remains a long way to go for Sri Lanka to transform its promises into a concrete, comprehensive, legitimate, and participatory framework aimed at securing the rights to truth, justice, reparation, and memory, and guarantees of non-repetition for the families of the disappeared and Sri Lankan society as a whole, in the context of a reconciliation process.

The Working Group hopes that the Government can take prompt action on a number of the recommendations and stands ready to assist in their implementation.

Sri Lanka wants recognition

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan delegation at the session said that all outstanding cases received from the UN Working Group on enforced and involuntary disappearances have also been shared with the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) for action as per its mandate.

Sri Lanka High Commission Counsellor Dayani Mendis said that in accordance with the OMP’s recommendation in its interim report, the Government had approved the grant of a monthly allowance of Rs. 6,000 to families of the missing with a certificate of absence from October 2019.

Meanwhile, Mendis also said that the Constitution of Sri Lanka which comprises the 19th Amendment, which has created several independent institutions as checks and balances on the use of state power and the laws of the country, informs and underpins actions and decisions of the different arms of the State. She also said that the rule of law had been further strengthened by the recent decisions of the higher judiciary.

“As we proceed on our path, we urge this Council to accord due recognition to these gains made by Sri Lanka amidst numerous challenges, including a spate of terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent Sri Lankans as well as foreigners on Easter Sunday this year, and that has compelled Sri Lanka to realign its immediate priorities,” she said.

– Easwaran Rutnam