Photo courtesy of Thilina Kaluthotage

The failure of Sri Lanka’s rulers to protect ordinary people and treat with them with dignity will be a focus of worldwide attention on October 6 when the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) votes on an important resolution. The final draft of promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka outlines multiple failings and calls for justice, although it does not go as far as some critics of the regime would like in terms of mechanisms for accountability. However if passed it may lay the foundation for further, tougher action by the UNHRC and others at international level.

Amid diplomacy and debate, as the date for decision draws closer, government ministers have veered back and forth between defiance of human rights norms and attempts to portray themselves as reasonable and responsible. Arrests of peaceful protestors, action against critics and a frighteningly wide ranging Bureau of Rehabilitation Bill demonstrate the hollowness of promises to tackle problems internally. However creating several high security zones in Colombo, in a crude attempt to crush protest, was a step too far and the order was revoked.

The resolution, along with a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, highlights the links between economic and political rights and the ways in which repression undermines good governance. Amid an economic crisis largely resulting from blunders by authoritarian leaders, insistence by the current leadership on continuing to wield power in largely arbitrary ways will prove costly. In particular, in the next few months the European Union will be assessing progress made towards meeting Sri Lanka’s commitments to allow ongoing access to the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) concession, which is important for trade. There is a strong possibility that the resolution will be passed, with far reaching consequences.

While minorities and dissidents have long faced human rights violations by those in charge, increasingly others too found that their own wellbeing, indeed basic survival, were put at risk. The resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa did not lead to a fundamental shift to a just and democratic society. While the indignation and sometimes desperation of the marginalised have largely gone unheard by top politicians, concerns have been picked up at international as well as national level.

In the run up to, and in the beginning of, the 51st regular session of the UNHRC, which started in September, the plight of Sri Lankans was once more on the agenda. The regime’s representatives argued that reforms could be entrusted to them yet have shown little sign of trustworthiness; for instance bringing the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act back into use to detain people on flimsy grounds. Foreign Minister Ali Sabry played a key role and will reportedly be back with officials to argue against the resolution.

On October 3, the International Truth and Justice Project released a “list of tangible steps the Government of Sri Lanka could take if serious about its commitments to the international community in Geneva on accountability for the past. It is not an exhaustive list – just a selection of fairly easy steps that don’t require major legislative reform and that would indicate good faith.” It contains saddening reminders of missed opportunities to heal old wounds and avoid creating new ones.

Against this background, the states in the Core Group on Sri Lanka – Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro, North Macedonia, the UK and the US – have, amidst consultation and negotiation, prepared and updated the draft. This is sponsored by 26 countries including 10 UNHRC members with voting rights: Czechia (former Czech Republic), Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Marshall Islands, the Netherlands, the UK and USA. Other sponsoring countries are Albania, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden and Turkey. According to a news report, the Sri Lankan regime is privately aware that the resolution will almost certainly be passed.

Some of the ground it covers is familiar from past resolutions including evidence of grave violations of human rights during the civil war by both government and LTTE forces and subsequent failures to look into what happened which might have brought some peace to survivors and families. That human rights abuses have continued was also flagged before, along with militarisation of what should be civilian functions, although the draft gives fresh instances, including violence against peaceful protestors, while attacks on government supporters are also condemned.

However the importance of economic rights and their close connection with other kinds of rights are more heavily emphasised, while gender based issues within these are acknowledged. The effects of “the severe economic crisis that has deteriorated in Sri Lanka since late 2021, exacerbated by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, and the profound impact that this has had on the people of Sri Lanka, including women-led households” are recognised. The “importance of addressing the underlying governance factors and root causes that have contributed to that crisis, including deepening militarization, lack of accountability in governance and impunity for serious human rights violations and abuses, which remains a central obstacle to the rule of law, reconciliation and sustainable peace and development” is underscored.

It is suggested “that the promotion and protection of human rights and the prevention of and fight against corruption are mutually reinforcing, that corruption can have a serious negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights, and that the poor and those in marginalized and vulnerable situations, including women and girls, are at particular risk of suffering from the adverse impact of corruption on the enjoyment of human rights.” Also attempts to rebuild the economy must not be at the expense of the most deprived: there is a “need to promote and protect the rights of the most marginalized and disadvantaged individuals, including daily wage earners, women, children, older persons and persons with disabilities.”

Equality is emphasised and the government urged “to fulfil its commitments on the devolution of political authority, which is integral to reconciliation and the full enjoyment of human rights by all members of its population.”

While the draft does not contain some of the stronger measures called for by various organisations concerned at the lack of progress such as referral to the International Criminal Court, gathering and analysing evidence that could be used in future features heavily. There is a call “to extend and reinforce the capacity of the Office of 1 A/HRC/51/5. the High Commissioner to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction.” Ongoing oral or written updates to the UNHRC are proposed over the next couple of years, including “a comprehensive report that includes further options for advancing accountability at its fifty-seventh session.”

However by that stage, a range of other measures may already be underway if those in charge in Sri Lanka continue to disregard basic rights and if Sri Lankans seeking a more humane and just society work together effectively alongside human rights defenders globally. The resolution should be a wakeup call to those in charge that empty promises no longer carry much weight and patience is wearing thin.