Photo courtesy of Lawyers for Lawyers

Numerous ways in which human rights failings harming Sri Lankans should be set right were flagged up on July 10 by the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC). This was part of a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in which all human rights in UN member states are regularly examined. Concerns repeatedly raised locally, yet brushed aside by ministers, were recognised as valid by international partners.

Of 294 recommendations, the regime claimed to accept 173, noted 115 and outright rejected six, emphasising its unwillingness to be held accountable. Even when improvements were pledged, in many instances it was clear that these were unlikely to be fully put into practice. This is not to underestimate the value of even modest changes in making life less grim for the most vulnerable in a country where those in charge are notorious for frequently being callous or cruel to those they are meant to serve and protect. Yet repeated failure to abide by even basic norms around human rights and democracy leave the country less stable, as well as harming so many of its people in varied ways.

Some representatives of other states politely congratulated the government for its commitments, however sceptical some might have been that it would keep its promises. But the regime’s failures were also underlined, not for the first time, that session. Internationally as well as at home, confidence in its willingness to bring about reconciliation is low, which would require a willingness to address past wrongs as well as preventing further injustice.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry and their associates may hope that efforts to win overseas support, including appearing to fulfil the IMF’s harsh conditions, may buy them time. Yet human rights are vital for sustainable economic recovery, as many have pointed out, as well as increasing global stability; patience is wearing thin.

Monitoring process

Sri Lanka was on the agenda early in the 53rd regular session of the HRC held from June 19 to July 14. As part of a process of monitoring progress (or lack of it) in addressing abuses identified earlier, an oral update on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka was presented on  June 21 by Nada Al-Nashif, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. Unsurprisingly, this underlined the need for major improvements in economic and social as well as political rights.

Over the years, UN human rights bodies have repeatedly called for justice and accountability, especially in the wake of an armed conflict that included large scale abuses by both government forces and the LTTE, although rights violations happened in other contexts too and continued after the war ended. Resolutions were passed but successive regimes failed to set matters right and further hardships, threats and indignities were heaped on families seeking to find out what happened to loved ones who had disappeared or to rebuild their lives in safety after the conflict. After those in power played a key part in wrecking the economy, then unleashed force to try to quell protests, the dangers of unaccountable rule were even more vividly exposed.

When the UPR was discussed by the HRC on July 10, members had before them a report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review that described how the review was conducted in January and February 2023 and the recommendations adopted. Some of these overlapped and were clustered together in the report. In line with common practice, three states had been selected by the HRC (Algeria, Qatar and United Kingdom) and others had channelled advance questions to the Sri Lankan government, which had been given the opportunity to respond in detail, yet many – often very serious – concerns remained. An addendumoutlined which of the recommendations the regime agreed to act on and which it did not.

Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Himali Arunathilake, reportedly explained the rejection of six recommendations which referred to HRC Resolutions 30/1, 46/1 and 51/1 on the grounds of the government’s position on these. Instead “Sri Lanka remains committed to pursuing efforts to achieve tangible progress in national reconciliation through domestic mechanisms with the assistance of international partners,” she said.

“Discussions are being held on the contours of a truth and reconciliation mechanism that would suit Sri Lanka in keeping with its constitutional framework. The advisory committee appointed to work on this matter will continue consultations with relevant stakeholders with a view to facilitating the drafting of required legislation,” she added.

Supposedly the government was committed to educating children, supporting “all recommendations on education, including those relating to human rights education, and access to education for persons with disabilities and in rural areas.” Tackling gender inequality was another supposed commitment, including adoption of a national policy on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, an independent National Women’s Commission giving leadership on legal and policy reforms and independent ombudswoman on gender issues.

Failure to act on calls for justice criticised

The UK government’s official comment underlined the need to act on those promises made and rectify ongoing grave failings although noting, “Sri Lanka’s constructive engagement with the Universal Periodic Review process and the initial steps it has taken to make progress in some areas since its last review.”

The apparent acceptance of recommendation 65.189, “Address concerns around land expropriation in the north and east by government departments, including the archaeological department, and related restrictions on access to land”, was welcomed, though the regime was urged “to reconsider its position on the United Kingdom’s other two recommendations relating to commemoration and memorialisation of victims of the civil war, and repealing sections of the Penal Code to end criminalization of same-sex conduct and ensure equality in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity.” In general, “We emphasise the importance of reconciliation, justice and accountability for all communities, and the importance of upholding the right to freedom of assembly and expression.”

Reactions were often more blunt, for instance, from the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). “FIDH and its partner organisation in Sri Lanka, the Center for Human Rights and Development (CHRD), decry the Sri Lankan government’s response to key recommendations it received during its fourth Universal Periodic Review (UPR)… We call on the Sri Lankan government to implement all recommendations received during the UPR and to fulfil Sri Lanka’s obligations under international law.”

Human Rights Watch also responded robustly, pointing out that the UPR included: “Important recommendations to address a legacy of near complete impunity for grave rights violations, continuing discrimination against minorities, and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and religion, and freedom from arbitrary detention. We deeply regret that Sri Lanka has rejected many of the most urgent recommendations, and that despite repeated assurances by the government of Sri Lanka, including in previous UPRs, violations continue without any accountability or meaningful systemic reform.

“The Office of Missing Persons… has failed to complete an investigation in even a single case, and has widely lost the confidence of victims’ families.… In July 2023, another mass grave was discovered in Mullaitivu in the North-East. Families believe these graves might contain the remains of their loved ones who were victims of enforced disappearance.

Various state agencies continue to seize lands belonging to Tamil and Muslim communities, frequently including religious sites, on a variety of pretexts…

An Anti-Terrorism Bill, which has been proposed to replace the PTA, would potentially criminalize a wide range of legitimate activism while granting sweeping arbitrary powers to the police, military and president. Since President Wickremesinghe came to office in July 2022, protests in Colombo and elsewhere have been routinely suppressed with force. We are particularly concerned that overdue local elections have been indefinitely postponed.”

Progress or pretence?

A wide range of recommendations were not accepted, merely noted, despite offering basic ways to relieve harsh and preventable suffering for numerous individuals and families. Besides several relating to abolishing the death penalty and to ending state victimisation on people on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, examples included 65.68, “Properly investigate and prosecute allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings by the police”; 65.147, “Uphold the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and release all individuals who have been detained for participation in peaceful protests”; and 65.271, “Take administrative, legislative and other measures to guarantee Indigenous Peoples their fundamental rights, including the recognition of their legal status, access to land, linguistic identity, access to health, education and other fundamental rights.”

Yet even the regime’s concessions apparently made to Sri Lankans demanding that their human rights be respected often contain a catch or are so vague as to be almost meaningless while concrete proposals to put these into practice have not been agreed. For instance, while the need to repeal the deeply flawed and unjust Prevention of Terrorism Act has been accepted, ministers seems no closer to proposing an alternative guaranteeing international standards of justice.

The planned national truth and reconciliation mechanism lacks credibility, as organisations representing victims and their families have made clear. “The victim community has no confidence in any local commission or tribunal created by the Sri Lankan state. These commissions have in fact revealed the intentions of successive governments to scuttle truth-seeking and the victims’ quest for accountability,” they stated.

Acting on promises to advance gender based equality might seem not as politically controversial. Yet recommendations not supported included, 65.16, “Ratify the International Labour Organization conventions, including the Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183), the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189), and the Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (No. 190)”; 65.241, “Remove all marital rape exceptions from laws criminalizing rape and require police to investigate and appropriately prosecute all acts of gender-based violence, including against a woman by her husband”; and 65.247, “Recognize female genital mutilation as a violation of the rights of women and girls by strengthening its legislative framework, by creating multisectoral coordination mechanisms and adopting policies to prevent and eliminate all harmful practices.” Actually protecting women and girls from unscrupulous employers and family violence is, in many instances, a step too far for the rulers.

Various pledges to tackle poverty, strengthen social protection and ensure essential healthcare are even further removed from reality. Millions of people cannot even afford to feed themselves and their families properly, with particularly damaging effects on children. Public services have been damaged. Health and other professionals are leaving the country in droves.

And, as civil society organisations and expert commentators have underlined, measures adopted to meet IMF demands are ripping further holes in an already tattered safety net meant to protect the most vulnerable. Pregnant and breastfeeding women cannot get adequate nutrition, with serious long term consequences. A more responsible and competent government might have negotiated a deal with more safeguards for those at risk and which would not lead to a downward spiral. But this was not to be. In the circumstances, there is overwhelming evidence that social protection measures are not working, the healthcare system is badly affected and more people are being sucked into extreme poverty.

As a former head of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, Professor Deepika Udagama, pointed out recently, different kinds of rights are intertwined. The Sri Lankan state is failing on multiple counts.