Photo courtesy of OnLanka

As the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) prepares to gather from June 19 to July 14, the situation in Sri Lanka is once more on the agenda. An oral update from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, is scheduled for June 21, while a Universal Periodic Review report on Sri Lanka is due to be discussed on July 10. The regime is likely to face tough scrutiny in view of its dismal failure, by and large, to improve how it treats the people it is meant to protect and serve.

Recent months have brought yet more squandered chances, while basic democratic norms have been abandoned. Political leaders have occasionally tried to quell dissent locally and win over overseas partners with promises of progress but credibility is wearing thin. The HRC’s 53rd regular session is likely to be intensely uncomfortable for the regime.

Local and international expectations and missed opportunities

Over the years, in Sri Lanka and many other countries, those in power have trampled on the civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights of numerous people and tried to silence objectors. International human rights campaigners and bodies such as the HRC (despite its weaknesses) have enabled the voices of those speaking out against such injustice to be more widely heard. They have helped to put pressure on unjust regimes, which all too often rely on overseas support to prop them up despite the cost to ordinary people.

The HRC and UN officials have repeatedly urged Sri Lanka’s rulers to address the consequences of past wrongs, as well as calling to account the leaders of armed groups that also committed grave abuses and to avoid further violations. The replacement of Gotabaya Rajapaksa with Ranil Wickremesinghe as president, after mass protests, offered an opportunity for a shift of direction; sadly, this was squandered. In October 2022, an HRC resolution set out a number of areas in which improvement was required, with periodic monitoring and warnings of consequences if the safety and dignity of Sri Lankans were not respected. Yet minorities, those facing poverty, women subjected to mistreatment, dissidents and others continued to suffer unnecessarily.

In March 2023 a different UN body made up of rights experts rather than representatives of states, the Human Rights Committee, examined Sri Lanka’s record, focusing of civil and political rights. The Committee expressed concern about arbitrary arrests and detention of anti-government protestors, trade unionists, Tamils and Muslims, prolonged pretrial detention and other abuses. The badly discredited Prevention of Terrorism Act was a cause for concern and its replacement with a law meeting basic standards of justice was urged.

Concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of Sri Lanka by the Human Rights Committee, dated April 26 detailed further concerns including failure to bring war crime perpetrators to justice, ongoing criminalisation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, discrimination against women and interference with freedom of expression and of assembly.

In addition, ten UN Special Rapporteurs (experts of specific aspects of human rights) wrote to the Sri Lankan president raising concerns about the impact of the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act and Rehabilitation Bill on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Their letter explained in detail the ways these fell short of what was required if Sri Lankans were to be protected from violations.

Grim cases such as that of torture survivor VM showed how far the country’s rulers were from meeting international obligations on rights for all, as well as basic standards of justice and compassion.

Evidence continued to emerge about a range of human rights abuses, including in tea factories and estates in Sri Lanka and other countries and members of the Malaiyaha (Hill Country Tamil) community, continued to push for greater equality.

Alienating people at home and abroad

As the 53rd HRC session drew closer, the regime made occasional gestures towards appearing reasonable; for instance President Wickremesinghe announced the fast tracking of legislation linked with an Action Plan for Reconciliation with Tamils. However it is unlikely that many were convinced that the regime could be trusted. In general, top leaders seemed set on alienating ordinary Sri Lankans still further.

Even an official body such as the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka was largely disregarded as it issued one call after another for basic standards to be observed. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka emphasised the right to protest yet the authorities shamelessly used teargas and water cannon on peaceful protestors despite the presence of international media conveying images to the world

The persistence of campaigners seeking to repeal laws used to persecute lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Sri Lankans led to a landmark Supreme Court judgement and the government has indicated it will back decriminalisation. Yet for every bad law removed from the statute book, ministers seem set to introduce another. A Broadcasting Regulatory Commission Bill, if pushed through, will seriously undermine freedom of expression. There is also a serious risk that labour law reforms in the current climate may weaken the position of workers while increasing employers’ power.

Meanwhile austerity measures are likely to inflict yet more misery on those who are already economically marginalised as current social protection measures fail to protect many who are vulnerable.

Sri Lankan human rights legal experts have signed a Justice for All letter outlining various “undemocratic measures pursued by President Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government that continue to undermine the rule of law, fundamental rights and democracy in Sri Lanka…We recognise for its destructive value the measures taken by the President and his government. We note that the consequences of these actions will have a lasting impact on the fabric of our society and shape the lives of the generations to come. The language of economic recovery and national security used to undermine the demands of the people must be resisted.”

It is against this background that the HRC will meet. When progress (or lack of it) is assessed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review is discussed, the government’s failings will be the focus of international scrutiny. Other reports too, whether or not explicitly, will touch on areas where the human rights record of the government is weak. Abroad as well as in Sri Lanka, impatience with a self-serving regime, which repeatedly squanders opportunities to relieve ordinary people’s suffering and insecurity, is wearing thin.