The UN Human Rights Council on Monday decided to give the new Sri Lankan government six months to cooperate with the UN inquiry into mass atrocities against the Tamil people, in order to ensure the submission of further information, stressing however, that the extension of time would be "for one time only".
In a written letter to the Council, which was holding a preliminary meeting on Monday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, requested member states to defer their consideration of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) report, till the 30th session in September, to allow for cooperation from the Sri Lankan government in order to gather more information and ensure a "stronger and more comprehensive report".
“There should be no misunderstanding,” Mr Zeid stressed, in a letter read to the Council, "I give my personal, absolute and unshakable commitment that the report will be published by September."
"Like my predecessors, I believe that one of the most important duties of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is to act as a strong voice on behalf of victims. I want this report to have the maximum possible impact in ensuring a genuine and credible process of accountability and reconciliation in which the rights of victims to truth, justice and reparations are finally respected.”
"My request is based on the changing context in Sri Lanka, and the signals of broad cooperation I have received from the Government, as well as the possibility that new information will become available for the report," he said.
Stating that it "has been a difficult decision", Mr Zeid explained that "there are good arguments for sticking to the original timetable, and there are also strong arguments for deferring the report’s consideration a bit longer, given the changing context in Sri Lanka, and the possibility that important new information may emerge which will strengthen the report.”
The inquiry, which was mandated by the Council in March 2014 following the Sri Lankan government's failure to investigate the allegations, was due to publish its findings next month, the Council's 28th session.
Earlier this month, officials from the new Sri Lankan government, including foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera, travelled to Geneva in order to request the publishing of the UN inquiry report be delayed till the Council's 30th session in September.
"I have received clear commitments from the new Government of Sri Lanka indicating it is prepared to cooperate with my Office on a whole range of important human rights issues – which the previous Government had absolutely refused to do – and I need to engage with them to ensure those commitments translate into reality," Mr Zeid said.
“Taking all this into account, I have therefore decided, on balance, to request more time to allow for a stronger and more comprehensive report."
Acknowledging the disappointment of the victims and witnesses who came forward to give evidence and who are yet to see justice done, Mr Zeid said: "I am acutely aware that many victims of human rights violations in Sri Lanka, including those who have bravely come forward to provide information to the inquiry team, might see this is as the first step towards shelving, or diluting, a report they have long feared they would never see."
"I fully understand those fears and deep anxieties, given the history of failed or obstructed domestic human rights inquiries in Sri Lanka, and the importance of this international investigation being carried out by my team at the UN Human Rights Office.”
The UK and US, who led the call for an international investigation into mass atrocities against the Tamil people, reiterated Mr Zeid's hope of cooperation and the use of the extra time to ensure further evidence and witnesses come forward.
Endorsing Mr Zeid's statement, the US encouraged the new Sri Lankan government to ensure the extra time was used to cooperate with the UN inquiry and recalled the statements made by the Sri Lankan foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera, to the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, during discussions in Washington earlier this month.
Also highlighting the disappointment of the Tamil victims, the UK said it was fully aware that witnesses who had provided evidence at great risk to themselves would find the deferral of the report difficult to accept.
Reiterating its commitment to the OHCHR process as the means of investigation into the crimes, the UK said it would agree to the deferral but did so on the "clear understanding" that there was no question of a further deferral.
Stating it hoped new information would become available over the next six months, the UK said it "strongly urges" Sri Lanka to ensure this is possible.
Mangala Samaraweera's letter to the High Commissioner
In a letter to the High Commissioner, which Mr Zeid forwarded to the Council, Mr Samaraweera outlined the Sri Lankan government's plan for the next six months:
"The Government looks forward to working with you and your office to develop this mechanism and obtain technical assistance.
In keeping with my letter dates 7 February 2015 inviting you to t visit Sri Lanka, I look forward to receiving you in Colombo at an early opportunity well before the 30th Session of the Human Rights Council.
The Government will also invite the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances at an early opportunity before the 30th Session of the Council and also invite relevant Special Procedure Mandate Holders on a needs-based early opportunity.
The Government will commence an immediate dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence with a view to seeking his advice as necessary including extending an invitation at an appropriate time.
As explained during my discussion with you and in this letter, the Government, although only just over a month old, has already taken a series of steps to ensure freedom of expression, assembly and movement, and protect and safeguard the human rights of all citizens as already manifested and widely acknowledged by the international community.
As you would recognize, the Government of Sri Lanka will require time to set up the domestic mechanisms required as indicated above. Therefore, the Government respectfully requests the following:
a) the Report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) to be presented at the 30th session of the Human Rights Council so that its contents can be taken into account by the domestic investigative and judicial mechanisms once they are set up by the Government in accordance with its commitments to the public.
b) the Human Rights Council does not formally discuss the Sri Lanka situation at its 28th Session."
See full letter here.