UNHRC: More time for Sri Lanka?

By Easwaran Rutnam

Sri Lanka may get more time to show progress on human rights issues, when the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meets in February and March for its 40th session.

A follow-up resolution on Sri Lanka is expected to be submitted to the council, but the European Union (EU) hinted at the possibility of it urging the Council to give Sri Lanka more time.

The EU Ambassador to Sri Lanka Tung-Lai Margue told The Sunday Morning that there was progress on the part of Sri Lanka in addressing human rights-related issues, although the progress was slow.

He said that the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) which commenced operations is a major achievement by Sri Lanka, while the adoption of the Reparations Bill is also a key step forward.

“I have seen a lot of progress, even though not enough, including land return by the Army,” he said.
The Government earlier insisted that it remained committed to addressing human rights issues in the country.

Minister Lakshman Kiriella said that the international community must understand that it would take time to address human rights issues.

Govt. wants more time

The Government is expected to push for more time at the 40th session of the UN Human Rights Council, mainly on the basis that while slow progress was being made, the 51-day political crisis resulted in the process grinding to a halt and resuming later.

Ambassador Tung-Lai Margue told The Sunday Morning that he was prepared to accept the fact that the political crisis did impact Sri Lanka’s progress in addressing the human rights issue.

He was also optimistic in light of the comments made recently by Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando that those soldiers who committed crimes were not war heroes and they would be dealt with.

Human rights groups have raised concerns over the failure by the Government to address the impunity issue, particularly when it involved the military.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) said it was deeply concerned by the recent appointment of Major General Shavendra Silva as the Chief of Staff of the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) and urged President Maithripala Sirisena to immediately review the appointment in light of serious allegations levelled against Major General Silva.

Major General Silva was the commanding officer of the 58th Division of the SLA during the last stage of the war, with allegations levelled against him in connection with violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL). CPA notes that the United Nations Panel of Experts (POE) named Major General Silva in their report with a recommendation for further independent investigations of violations committed during the war. Subsequent to the POE report, several other reports including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) report, documented violations of International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law.

CPA and several other groups raised similar concerns in May, 2015 when President Sirisena appointed Major General Jagath Dias to the same position, urging the Government of Sri Lanka to initiate urgent security sector reforms including the vetting of military personnel.

The Interim Report of the OMP recommended in 2018 that state officials including members of the armed forces who are named as suspects or accused in criminal actions relating to abductions and enforced disappearances be suspended or promotions halted pending the final determination of cases.
Ambassador Tung-Lai Margue, meanwhile, noted that the failure to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and replace it with the Counter Terrorism Act (CTA) was of concern.

He said that while admitting that a strong anti-terrorism legislation was required to counter the threat of terrorism, it needed to be balanced by appropriate measures to ensure that there were no abuses linked to that.

“That is the main element we will like to see in the (Counter Terrorism Act) draft,” he said.
The UNHRC will discuss a report on Sri Lanka by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on 20 March at the 40th session of the Human Rights Council which takes place from 25 February-22 March in Geneva.

Multiple reports on Sri Lanka

The agenda approved on 15 January for the 40th session notes that in resolution 34/1, the Human Rights Council requested the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to continue to assess progress on the implementation of its recommendations and other relevant processes related to reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka.

Pursuant to the same resolution, the Council will consider the report of OHCHR thereon (A/HRC/40/23) on 20 March, followed by a discussion on the implementation of Council resolution 30/1.

Already, several reports were submitted to the Secretariat of the OHCHR to be discussed at the 40th session which were either related to Sri Lanka or have referenced Sri Lanka.

Among the reports submitted, was a report by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism based on his visit to Sri Lanka in 2017.

That report was very critical of Sri Lanka’s failure to meet its commitments to the international community.

However, since the visit by the Special Rapporteur, more progress has been made, including the establishment of the OMP office.

Meanwhile, a report on missing persons by the UN Secretary General submitted for the 40th session makes references to Sri Lanka and the OMP office.

The report noted that the OMP became operational in September, 2017 and the Chair and the members of the Office were appointed on 28 February, 2018.

The UN Secretary General António Guterres noted that the office was one aspect of a broader transitional justice process, initially set out in Human Rights Council resolution 30/1.

“Long delays have been faced in the establishment of the office, and it is now crucial that it work expeditiously with a victims-centred, consultative approach. The urgent need to clarify the fate of the missing persons in Sri Lanka requires the office to take immediate action to address cases,” the UN Secretary General noted in the report.

The annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was also expected to make references to Sri Lanka.

New lead co-sponsor

In March, 2017, the UNHRC co-sponsored Resolution 34/1, giving Sri Lanka time till March, 2019 to show progress. The United States of America, the United Kingdom, Macedonia, Montenegro, Canada, Israel, Australia, Japan, Norway, Germany, Republic of Korea, Lichtenstein, Slovakia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Albania, Belgium, Ireland, Indonesia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Iceland, France, Lithuania, Slovenia, Poland, Portugal, Ivory Coast, Bulgaria, Greece, Latvia, Sweden, Romania, Finland, Malta, Georgia, Netherlands, Spain, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Austria, Denmark, Italy, Estonia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina co-sponsored the resolution together with Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka was expected to co-sponsor the new resolution as well which was likely to be moved by the UK, Canada, or Germany as the United States is no more a member of the council.

The US has been consistently involved on the Sri Lanka issue at the UNHRC but withdrew from the council last year.