Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Brief

During the first week of the latest United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) gathering in Geneva, the grave economic and political situation in Sri Lanka was discussed and strong action urged. This included a hard-hitting report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), delivered by Acting High Commissioner Nada Al-Nashif.

An initial draft of a resolution by a Core Group of member states adds to the list of actions called for at previous sessions, while not yet pushing for more drastic measures to advance justice for Sri Lankans and prevent further harm. However at international level as well as locally, the UNHRC is being urged to get tougher with the regime, given repeated government failures over the years to take action on past abuses and stop perpetrating new ones. This includes a resolution to the US Senate by the Chairman and three other members of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The damaging failings of those in power in Sri Lanka will have a high profile over the next few weeks with potentially drastic consequences.

Sri Lanka’s crisis laid bare

“Sri Lanka is experiencing an unprecedented economic crisis and is now at a critical juncture in its political life, bringing into sharp focus the indivisibility of human rights,” stated the September 2022 report on “Situation of human rights in Sri Lanka”. “Since March 2022, Sri Lankans from all communities and walks of life, in particular young people, have come together in a broad-based protest movement to demand a change of government and call for accountability and deeper reforms. Meanwhile victims of past human rights violations continue to wait for truth, justice and redress.” It urged the “international community to support Sri Lanka in its recovery, but also in addressing the underlying causes of the crisis, including impunity for human rights violations and economic crimes. By pursuing a number of options to advance accountability at the international level, Member States can help Sri Lankans seek justice, reconciliation and human rights.”

This was circulated before the 51st regular session of the UNHRC, running from September to 12 October 7. The outgoing High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, had taken up Sri Lankans’ concerns over the years but it was left to Nada Al-Nashif, who has served in a range of UN roles, to present the report. She briefly outlined the background, suggesting that, “The broad-based demands by Sri Lankans from all communities, in particular youth, for accountability and democratic reforms present an important starting point for a new and common vision for the future of Sri Lanka.” She urged the government to stop relying on draconian security laws but instead foster a positive environment, seek reconciliation and address the legacy of conflict. “In the absence of current and effective accountability options in Sri Lanka, the High Commissioner has called on States to pursue alternate strategies to advance the accountability at the international level, including through consideration of targeted sanctions against alleged perpetrators as well as cooperation to initiate prosecutions on the basis of extraterritorial and universal jurisdiction,” she said.

Representatives of various governments then spoke, beginning with Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, and also non-governmental organisations. He claimed that problems were being addressed internally and that the proposals would violate sovereignty, while “economic crimes” were outside the OHCHR’s mandate, while pledging ongoing cooperation with the UNHRC.

Perhaps riskily, he claimed that, “It is 13 years since the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka, and since then a new generation has emerged with their own aspirations. While issues of reconciliation and accountability are being comprehensively addressed through a domestic process, it is time to reflect realistically on the trajectory of this resolution which has continued on the agenda of the Council for over a decade, and undertake a realistic assessment on whether it has benefited the people of Sri Lanka.” This drew attention to the scarcity, over many years, of concrete measures to address the suffering of victims of past violence and their families and stop ongoing abuses, despite repeated UNHRC reports and other pleas from international partners. This might lead some to consider that maybe a firmer approach is needed.

Other states weighed in on the regime’s behalf, predictably including China, itself under pressure because of extremely serious human rights abuses, as well as North Korea. But many were critical, including significantly India and some members of the Core Group (made up of Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro, North Macedonia, the UK and the USA).

India’s statement read out by the permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Indra Mani Pandey, noted with concern “the lack of measurable progress by Government of Sri Lanka on their commitments of a political solution to the ethnic issue- through full implementation of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, delegation of powers to Provincial Councils and holding of Provincial Council elections” and urging a political settlement within the framework of an united Sri Lanka, ensuring justice, peace, equality and dignity for the Tamils of Sri Lanka.”

Canada’s representative was “deeply concerned that Sri Lanka’s ongoing political and economic crises will lead to further deterioration of human rights, with the greatest impacts on the most vulnerable, including women, youth, and the elderly. Recent violent attacks against those protesting peacefully is demonstrative of a persistent culture of impunity, as well as intimidation and surveillance of civil society and journalists… Canada stands in solidarity with the peoples of the island.” UK comments also picked up on “reports of continued militarisation and intimidation impacting on communities in the north and east, including on families of the disappeared,” pointing out that “The domestic reconciliation and accountability process promised in 2020 has not emerged. For these reasons, OHCHR’s work collecting and preserving evidence must continue.”

Meanwhile the Committee on Enforced Disappearances was holding its 23rd Session. It heard from Sandya Ekneligoda, the wife of journalist and human rights activist Prageeth Ekneligoda who was forcibly disappeared in 2010, who had not given up trying to find out the truth, despite threats. She pointed out that many Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim women had shared the experience of searching for their missing loved ones. Her testimony was a reminder of the human cost of harsh policies unrelentingly pursued.

Resolution and resolve

In a joint letter to UNHRC members states, Amnesty International, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Human Rights Watch and International Commission of Jurists called for a strong resolution. It was important to strengthen the current UN mandate on accountability and address ongoing abuses, including use of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act in their view.

The four groups urged that, “Until such a time as appropriate investigations and prosecutions take place within Sri Lanka for crimes under international law committed there, the resolution should recall that all states are permitted to exercise universal jurisdiction over crimes under international law and, sometimes, that states are obligated to do so, in particular, when the alleged perpetrator is present in any territory under their jurisdiction.”

A first draft of the resolution raised numerous human rights concerns, some echoing issues flagged up previously and others which were new. They included alarm “at the human rights impacts of the economic crisis, including as result of increased food insecurity, severe shortages in fuel, shortages in essential medicines and reductions in household incomes, while stressing the need to promote and protect the rights of the most marginalized and disadvantaged individuals, including daily wage earners, children, older persons, and persons with disabilities” and “over other human rights developments since April 2022 including violence against and arrests of peaceful protestors, as well as violence against Government supporters.”

The draft noted “the persistent lack of independence, impartiality, and transparency of domestic mechanisms, and that emblematic human rights cases have been undermined through delays and the granting of Presidential pardon to those accused or convicted of crimes relating to grave violations of human rights.” Ongoing support to the OHCR in gathering and analysing evidence was mentioned and it was asked “to enhance its monitoring and reporting on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka, including on progress in reconciliation and accountability, and on the human rights impact of the economic crisis and corruption.”

Periodic updates to the UNHRC were proposed, with “a comprehensive report that includes further options for advancing accountability at its fifty-seventh session.” While uncomfortable for the regime, this was not as strong as many had hoped. There have been calls for a stronger stance and there will be ongoing conversations about what is in the final draft.

Pressure on the regime from various quarters is mounting, including a resolution to the US Senate by Senator Bob Menendez Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, along with Senators Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy and Cory Booker. This includes recognition of the contribution to the current economic and political mess made by the Rajapaksa family, which “enriched themselves at the expense of the Sri Lankan people, ruthlessly silencing their opponents, inciting ethnic tensions, and leaving the country an economic shambles,” Senator Leahy said. “After years of civil war and government mismanagement and abuse, Sri Lanka needs a government that is committed to ethnic tolerance, equitable economic development, human rights, and justice.”

If agreed, the Senate will formally urge greater respect for equality and human rights in Sri Lanka, commend humanitarian efforts and call on the UNHRC to extend and reinforce the OHCHR’s mandate for an additional two years and fully resource the Sri Lanka Accountability Project.

It is as yet unclear how firm the UNHRC’s resolve will be in taking action for change, especially when many globally are concerned about Sri Lanka’s economic recovery. But this may be jeopardised if the country is still run in largely unaccountable ways and for the benefit of a small elite largely connected to the ruling group. With an international spotlight on various forms of suffering inflicted especially on the poor and minorities, those in power may ultimately find it hard to avoid being held to account for their treatment of other Sri Lankans.

To read a commentary on the Human Rights situation in Sri Lanka in the buildup to UNHRC sessions, click here.