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As Sri Lankans continue to protest against postponement of local elections, harsh austerity measures and other injustices, the regime faces added pressure as UN bodies gather in Geneva. The situation in Sri Lanka is due to be reviewed by civil and political rights experts on March 8 and 9 at a Human Rights Committee (HRC) session. Meanwhile as the member states of the Human Rights Council meet, although Sri Lanka is not on the agenda, the plight of its people is touched on in other reports on various international concerns.

The latest abuses of power by the island’s leaders including unleashing brutal, indeed lethal, force against the people they are meant to protect and serve defy not only local norms but also repeated calls for restraint by international bodies. Despite UN scrutiny of human rights at the beginning of February (part of the Universal Periodic Review cycle), state violations across the country have been blatant, although ineffective, in silencing protesters. As the cruel failings of President Ranil Wickremesinghe and his regime are exposed on the world stage, March is likely to be an uncomfortable month for them.

Under the UN HRC spotlight

The HRC is composed of 18 independent experts who are persons of high moral character and recognized competence in the field of human rights and members are elected for a term of four years by states parties and serve in their personal capacity, according to the website of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights.

“All States parties are obliged to submit regular reports to the Committee on how civil and political rights are being implemented. States must report initially one year after acceding to the Covenant and then whenever the Committee requests. In accordance with the Predictable Review Cycle, the Committee requests the submission of the report based on an eight-year calendar,” it said.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on which they focus is more limited in scope than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but more detailed on certain rights and freedoms.

As the 137th session, being held from February 27 to March 24, the Sri Lankan state and those of Egypt, Turkmenistan, Zambia, Peru and Panama are being reviewed. A range of documents have been assembled. These include a list of issues identified in mid-2020 for the state to report on and the government’s less than convincing response and updates. Concerns ranging from the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act and gaps in accountability for serious human rights violations to ending targeting and arbitrary detention of Tamils and Muslims, crackdowns on freedom of expression and assembly to gender-based violence persist. While the government is edging forward on removing legislation used to criminalize lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, on certain matters it has moved backward.

Information on the grim current situation is provided in many of the civil society reports linked to on the session web page. There is a report from the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. This is typically cautious but paints a sombre picture, for instance making the point that “The HRCSL is of the view that enforced disappearances of persons is one of the most serious human rights violations bringing untold sorrow to loved ones. It cannot be denied that these disappearances have had a devastating impact on families, sometimes resulting in families being torn apart following the enforced of the sole breadwinner… A mechanism that could win the trust of those affected should be established to address this issues. Enabling families to find the truth about their disappeared loved ones is an important aspect.” Torture is “of routine nature that is practised all over the country mainly under police detentions…the treatment and detention conditions of prisoners fall far below the threshold of basic living standards.” It urges “that the authorities should be allowed  peaceful protesters to claim their rights.”

In some instances, international organizations have helped to assemble, and draw attention to, evidence and views from local activists. For instance, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have itemised in detail the ways in which, by early 2023, the government had failed to achieve the improvements which might have shown a genuine commitment to respect Sri Lankans’ rights in line with covenant responsibilities.

On March 8 and 9, there will be a chance for committee members to review the evidence and reach their own conclusions.

International concerns at HRC session

Meanwhile the 52nd regular session of the Human Rights Council (27 February to 4 April 2023) got underway. Made up of 47 member states that are elected by the UN General Assembly, it is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe and addressing violations. Unlike at the last session, the Sri Lankan situation is not an agenda item although it will have a higher profile at the 53rd session when an oral update is due, followed by a written update at the 54th session, notching up the pressure.

Nevertheless what is happening in Sri Lanka is being addressed in some broader items. For example, on March 2, as representatives of various governments addressed the gathering, Sri Lanka’s representative defended the state’s record. However reports by specialists highlight ongoing suffering among people outside the ruling elite, including often overlooked and well publicised injustices.

A report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights described how “The report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences, on his visit to Sri Lanka contained reports about members of oppressed castes not being able to own suitable land to secure a livelihood, which forced many to work in conditions that could amount to forced labour, servitude or other slavery-like practices…In the report on his visit to Sri Lanka, the same Special Rapporteur raised concerns about the minority community of Malaiyaha Tamils, who continued to face multiple forms of discrimination based on their descent. He also noted that child labour was particularly severe in poor rural areas populated by ethnic minorities, and that children, in particular girls, dropped out of school to support their families.”

A report by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, mentioned how “Human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah has for years worked to combat Islamophobia and hate speech in Sri Lanka. As a result, he has been subjected to harassment, threats and detention, and was detained from April 2020 to February 2022 under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act. Despite these risks, he has persisted in seeking accountability for hate speech directed at the Muslim minority in the country.”

In the month ahead, UN human rights and other international bodies will help to ensure that Sri Lankans organizing against violations of their rights and the thwarting of democracy are heard across the world.