Photo courtesy of Kumanan

Lack of accountability by the powerful undermines the rights of numerous Sri Lankans, according to a hard-hitting report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk. The situation of human rights in Sri Lanka is on the agenda for the opening day of the 54th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) from September 11 to October 13 when the regime will face tough criticism. Locally and internationally, others too have drawn attention to grave human rights failings and fresh allegations have been made about the Easter 2019 bombings.

“The economic crisis continues to have a severe impact on the rights and well-being of many Sri Lankans” and “it is essential that the burden of reforms does not fall unequally upon some segments of society,” the UN report emphasises. “Lack of accountability at all levels remains the fundamental main human rights problem. Whether it refers to war crime atrocities, post-war emblematic cases, torture and deaths in police custody, excesses in crowd control, corruption and the abuse of power, Sri Lanka suffers from an extraordinary accountability deficit that unless addressed will drag the country further behind.”

While it is mainly the Sri Lankan authorities’ responsibility to address this, recommendations set out how “the international community can play an important complementary role, including through supporting relevant criminal justice investigations and prosecutions, the use of universal jurisdiction, and consideration of appropriate targeted sanctions against persons credibly implicated in serious human rights violations.”

It is not just the HRC which has been flagging up concerns about the regime. A Sri Lankan civil society coalition recently highlighted the urgent need for democracy if serious economic problems were to be tackled effectively, pointing out that for “people to be able to hold their representatives and the stewards of public resources accountable, they need to be able to exercise their democratic rights and freedoms”.

A number of international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, pointed out “grave reservations about the Sri Lankan government’s proposed National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. Our concerns echo many of those already raised by victims of conflict-related abuses and their families”, who have often “already engaged in multiple similar processes over decades. The current proposals risk further re-traumatization, with little expectation that victims’ rights and needs will be addressed.” The Crisis Group has also expressed scepticism about proposals which do not have the confidence of those most affected and seem set to repeat the mistakes of the past.

A documentary broadcast by the UK’s Channel 4 included startling new allegations about the role of the Rajapaksas – still influential today in government circles – in assassinations and the terrorist explosions in 2019 in which 269 people were killed. Ex-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa has dismissed these as untrue. Whether or not every claim is accurate, the programme adds to already weighty evidence of collusion and cover up. Refusal by those wielding power to be held accountable continues to get in the way of a better future for ordinary Sri Lankans.

HRC to discuss social, political, cultural and economic rights violations

Serious and wide ranging abuses of Sri Lankans’ human rights had been identified in earlier sessions and the regime repeatedly urged to make changes. Yet it has stalled or brought in measures that offer little, if any, genuine improvement while people outside the inner circle of the ruling elite continue to suffer in a range of ways.

Missed opportunities have taken a serious toll on health and wellbeing, the High Commissioner’s report indicates. The summary states that “The crisis continues to have a severe impact on the rights of many Sri Lankans, with sharply increasing poverty levels. Victims of human rights violations continue to wait for truth, justice, reparations and measures to guarantee non-repetition. There are opportunities ahead to address these challenges through governance reforms and reconciliation initiatives, but these need to be accompanied by meaningful and independent accountability measures.” Progress “would be particularly timely in a year that marks both the 75th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence and the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The economic crisis has caused a stark increase in poverty levels, which seem set to rise further in 2023, according to the report. The number of malnourished children also continues to grow. It warns that “possible austerity measures to overcome the crisis, such as increasing taxes, reducing Government expenditure, and limiting investments in health, education, and care services, may result in unintended and adverse impacts on various human rights” and emphasises that rights are indivisible. “In order to achieve a path to recovery and sustainable development Sri Lanka will need to address the longer-term serious governance and accountability deficits, as well as the continuing legacy of the armed conflict.”

New legislation is being pushed through that overrides human rights, including greater state control over broadcasting although more positively, same-sex relationships may be decriminalised. Although some people held under the deeply flawed Prevention of Terrorism Act have been freed, an acceptable alternative which meets basic principles of justice has yet to be proposed.

A heavy military presence in former conflict areas has heightened tensions, as has “the trend towards hard line nationalist rhetoric that undermined reconciliation between ethnic and religious communities” although “The President has set a different tone in several speeches…However, land disputes between the State and citizens from local communities continue to be reported, with 26 such disputes recorded between October 2022 and June 2023, mostly in the Northern and Eastern provinces.” Human rights defenders and nongovernmental organisations in the North and East have faced surveillance, intimidation and harassment while freedom of expression and peaceful assembly continue to be undermined.

Justice is still being withheld from victims and survivors of serious past violations including enforced disappearances and the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019 and their families. The government’s proposal for a truth and reconciliation mechanism falls far short of what is required to build trust and find out the truth, the report suggests.

As requested by the HRC previously and working closely with victims, survivors and civil society organisations, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has been gathering and analysing information and evidence. Four priority areas have been selected for further investigation: unlawful killings, sexual and gender-based violence and torture in detention settings, enforced disappearances and violations against and affecting children, including the recruitment and use of children in hostilities.

“It remains vital for the international community to remain engaged on the issue of accountability and contribute alongside national processes,” the report suggests. “There have been some encouraging developments in this arena, such as a number of States pursuing criminal investigations against persons implicated in violations and abuses and related crimes in Sri Lanka…It is to be hoped that the international community, through the United Nations and other multilateral fora, as well as individual States on a bilateral basis with Sri Lanka, will continue to work together to advance accountability.”

Reportedly the Sri Lankan government plans to respond in a low-key manner rather than sending a delegation of high profile figures. However work on a one to one basis to try to win backing by other governments is almost certainly continuing.

The situation in Sri Lanka is due to come up again later in the session. A report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, likely to be discussed on September 19, states that the “Working Group continues to be concerned at numerous reports of acts of harassment and intimidation of relatives of disappeared persons and human rights defenders” and “at the scarce progress made by the Office on Missing Persons in delivering on its mandate to help families searching for their loved ones and establish the truth.”

Others share concerns amid squandered chances

The documentary Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: Dispatches conveyed the horror of what happened and anguish of survivors. It was also a grim reminder that violations of the human rights of any section of the population endanger the safety and dignity of people across the island. The ruthlessness of rule by the Rajapaksa family, as well as the corruption, deception and violence affecting even the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, were explored although some fresh claims made by whistle blowers will need to be verified. The backdrop to the bombings included the deaths of numerous civilians towards the end of the civil war, murder of journalists including courageous Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, loss of power by the Rajapaksas and their allies and keenness to regain this in the 2019 election.

News reports have focused on the interview with Hanzeer Azad Maulana, who worked with politician and former rebel fighter Pillayan. Yet what was alleged by former senior police officer Nishantha Silva and a former high ranking government official whose identity was protected was also vitally important  and tied in with what is already known or seems highly probable. Sadly many people have got used to a political culture in which critics of the state can be badly beaten or murdered with impunity and terror attacks not stopped despite warnings while serious wrongdoing is glossed over.

Various national and international bodies have been drawn into a controversy over attempts by Sinhala Buddhist supremacists (although deplored by many of the same ethnicity and religion) to disrupt Hindu worship and impose their own culture despite local people’s protests. MP Sarath Weerasekera, a retired admiral and former minister, was criticised by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) and International Commission of Jurists, after seeking to undermine the independence of the judiciary by making inflammatory remarks with racist overtones about a judge. A Lawyers’ Collective has urged BASL to take a stronger stance on what it regards as President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s efforts to stifle democracy.

Over 80 trade unions and civil society organisations have written an open letter protesting against the damaging measures introduced in response to demands by the IMF. “IMF-backed reforms have disintegrated Sri Lankan society. Malnutrition has increased. The impact these years will have on the health of our children is unimaginable. Houses do not have electricity or running water. School dropouts have increased. The streets are overflowing with homeless people. Drug usage has increased. The mental health crisis is reaching a tipping point. There is a mass exodus of skilled people from Sri Lanka because Sri Lanka is no longer a country where people can scrape even a bare minimum living,” they warned. The reforms are in fact “crushing our economy”.

Supposedly there is a safety net for the most vulnerable, yet in reality it is full of holes, with drastic consequences.

Some in Sri Lanka and the international community may have confidence in the regime or wish to support it because they believe they may have something to gain. However it has repeatedly let down those who had hoped for consistent positive change based on commitment to human rights for all. As the HRC gathers in September, it will be hard to avoid local and international scrutiny of the unnecessary suffering being inflicted on numerous Sri Lankans.