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How meaningful is Sri Lanka's UPR?

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As the 14th Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session gets under way at the UN Human Rights Council this week, the spotlight will once again fall on Sri Lanka and its human rights record - but just how meaningful a process will it be?

Last time Sri Lanka faced a review at the Council was in 2008, when Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had been elected on a tidal wave of popular Sinhala support for a renewed war effort, was intensifying his military offensive against the LTTE. Whilst the reports of paramilitaries, torture, abductions, killings, and the targeting of human rights defenders, journalists and humanitarian workers were acknowledged in the recommendations, the scale of human rights abuses, war crimes and genocide that Sri Lanka unleashed less than a year later, made a mockery of the entire process. Re-visiting the 2008 recommendations, in light of what has happened and continues to take place, should be a sobering read to any within the UPR Working Group.

Recommendations included: to 'strengthen the human rights machinery within national institutions' (Algeria, China), ensure the 'protection of witnesses and victims' (Austria, Czech Rep.), take 'necessary measures to safeguard the human rights of IDPs in accordance with applicable international standards' (Austria), 'safeguard freedom of expression and protect human rights defenders, and effectively investigate allegations of attacks on journalists, media personnel and human rights defenders and prosecute those responsible' (Ireland), eliminate 'all forms of ill treatment or torture in the prisons and detention centres' (Iran), 'take steps to verifiably disarm all paramilitary groups' (UK), and 'ensure the return and restitution of housing and lands in conformity with international standards for internally displaced persons' (Belgium).

Notably, recommendations that involved any international or UN monitoring of human rights on the ground were invariably rejected by Sri Lanka, such as 'invite the United Nations to establish a presence in Sri Lanka, the mandate of which would include protection, monitoring, investigation and reporting' (Slovenia), accept 'independent international monitoring be taken up as recommendations' (Sweden) and 're-engage with international human rights monitoring and assistance mechanisms by agreeing to establish an OHCHR field presence, whose mandate would allow unfettered access to monitor, investigate and report human rights violations and promote remedial measures, including criminal investigation, prosecution and capacity-building of domestic human rights mechanisms' (United States).

What is UPR?

The UPR (Universal Periodic Review) is a mechanism at the Human Rights Council whereby the human rights situation of all 193 UN member states is reviewed regularly - every 4 and half years to be precise.

In order to review all 193 states, each year, three UPR sessions are held (January to February, May to June and October to November) and 14 members states reviewed at each session.

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The context in which Sri Lanka will face UPR has no doubt markedly altered since 2008. The international community's willingness to support the state's 'war on terror' has now significantly shifted to criticism of its conduct during the armed conflict and its aftermath. The fact that this criticism has not been translated into any affirmative action however, is a festering wound in any future prospects of stability on the island - and Sri Lanka's UPR is unlikely to make amends.  

The mechanism of UPR, constructed of self-serving layers of procedures and diplomatic niceties, dictates that the benchmark against which Sri Lanka will be measured, is the recommendations that came of its first session – and even then, only the recommendations Sri Lanka agreed to accept. Adding to the obvious absurdity of this glorified self-appraisal, the scathing report by the UN Panel of Experts and the resolution adopted by the very same Council earlier this year will almost invariably be sidelined, at best.

Yet, even through this impotent prism, it is immediately apparent that the key concerns of 2008 are of heightened concern today. In the time that has elapsed, Sri Lanka is said to have made a transition from 'war on terror' to 'peace and reconciliation'. However, instead of a steady progression towards its self-assigned benchmark, Sri Lanka has obliterated any regard for human rights, and continues to do so with increasingly emboldened impunity.

Sri Lanka's defence is, as ever, predictable. Whilst at the last session the situation was blamed on the LTTE, this session will no doubt include lamentations about the lack of time and space. Sri Lanka has had ample time. To grant it more, with a dutiful slap on the wrist, would once again allow the state to make a mockery of the Working Group, and ensure that the outcome of the 2016 UPR is a foregone conclusion.

Ultimately, an in-house appraisal with states systematically alternating between the role of examiner and that of the examined, can be of little value. However, the one saving grace in this mechanised saga, would be for key member states to begin asking themselves the most pertinent question – not how bad is the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, but why? Why, over three years later and despite much talk of 'reconciliation' and 'development', has the human rights situation not only regressed, but continues to do so with ever increasing brazenness? It is only in questioning Sri Lanka's seeming delinquency that the UPR process and the member states that enact it, can gain any meaningful credibility.

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