UN Rights Chief fires first salvo ahead of Geneva session

By Easwaran Rutnam

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet fired the first warning shots to Sri Lanka ahead of the upcoming UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session in Geneva.

During an informal briefing in Geneva on Monday, the High Commissioner noted that Sri Lanka would be among the countries which would have the attention of the Council at the 40th session which begins later this month.

“Sri Lanka was referred to in her review of priorities requiring attention at the 40th session of the UNHRC, together with the human rights situations in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Guatemala, Yemen, Sudan, Myanmar, and Tanzania, with brief references to Uganda and Burkina Faso, both under threat, and Zimbabwe,” sources said.

Speaking on Sri Lanka, the High Commissioner noted the positive developments in Sri Lanka, especially the establishment of the Office on Missing Persons (OMP).

However, she asserted that progress on transitional justice had been slow and delayed.
According to sources, the High Commissioner said that there was a lack of sufficient progress on truth seeking and accountability for past violations and in the implementation of confidence-building measures.

She had said that obstacles to reconciliation remained and her office and other parts of the UN are ready to assist in tackling these obstacles.

“As almost all of the time was then taken by states, primarily those criticised by the High Commissioner – and their allies, a three-member team from the Sri Lankan mission remained discreetly silent,” the source said.

Human Rights Watch then spoke briefly on Sri Lanka and recognised the establishment of the OMP but expressed concern over the slow rate of implementation.

The UNHRC will meet in Geneva for its 40th session from 25 February to 22 March, 2019.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights already set 20 March as the day to discuss the report on Sri Lanka at the Council in Geneva.

Sri Lanka was listed on the agenda for the 40th session after making a commitment to show progress on the human rights issue by this March. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Bachelet or the Deputy High Commissioner would submit the report on Sri Lanka during the session.

Sri Lanka is expected to get more time to show progress on human rights issues, when the UNHRC meets for its 40th session.

A follow-up resolution on Sri Lanka is expected to be submitted to the Council which is likely to push Sri Lanka for a time-bound action plan to address the human rights issue.

In the absence of the US, which has withdrawn from the UNHRC, Britain is likely to take a lead role on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC.

Among the high level delegates set to speak at the session is the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon.

Last month, Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera called on Lord Tariq Ahmad at his office in Westminster, London.

They discussed progress made in the areas of human rights and reconciliation and other matters of mutual interest.

Meanwhile, the Government submitted its observations and comments to the UNHRC on the draft report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism on his mission to Sri Lanka in July, 2017.

Responding to concerns raised by the Special Rapporteur on the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), the Government said that while there was a process in place to repeal and replace the PTA to adhere to international standards, an administratively enforced moratorium on arrests under the PTA was in operation since July, 2017.

The Government also emphasised that since July, 2017, no suspects had been held in administrative detention under the PTA and no arrests were made, and accordingly, all suspects arrested under the PTA previously were in judicial detention since July, 2017, and have been periodically produced before a magistrate while they are in remand custody pending trial/during the hearing.

Govt. assurance

“The Human Rights Commissions of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) has unrestricted access to detainees as a further safeguard to ensure that detainees are free from torture and/or other ill-treatment,” the Government’s response tabled last week stated.

Further, the Government noted that Sri Lanka had undertaken granting the UN Sub Committee on Prevention of Torture with the recent ratification of the OPCAT which ensured unrestricted access to all information concerning the number of persons deprived of their liberty in places of detention , as well as the number of places and their locations, unrestricted access to all information referring to the treatment of those persons as well as their conditions of detention, and unrestricted access to all places of detention and their installations and facilities in accordance with the OPCAT.

Sri Lanka also agreed to grant the UN Sub Committee on Prevention of Torture the opportunity to have private interviews with the persons deprived of their liberty without witnesses, either personally or with a translator if deemed necessary, as well as with any other persons who the Subcommittee on Prevention believed may supply relevant information.

The Government will also give the UN Sub Committee on Prevention of Torture the liberty to choose the places it wants to visit and the persons it wants to interview.

In its concluding remarks, the Government noted that it made the observations and comments to the report by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism with the objective of furthering the dialogue in continuation of its policy of constructive engagement, while providing clarifications, additional information or perspectives that the Special Rapporteur may not have had access to during his country visit, and also taking note that the visit took place about one year ago from the report.