Ahead of the 51st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the UN High Commissioner has released a scathing report on Sri Lanka outlining the deepening militarisation, the continued harassment of Tamil survivor communities, and the deterioration of human rights on the island.
“Thirteen years since the end of the war, victims of past human rights violations continue to await truth and justice. The Sri Lankan State, including through successive governments, has consistently failed to pursue an effective transitional justice process to hold perpetrators of gross human rights violations and abuses accountable and uphold victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparations. Rather, they have created political obstacles to accountability, and actively promoted and incorporated some military officials credibly implicated in alleged war crimes into the highest levels of government. This impunity emboldened those committing human rights violations and created a fertile ground for corruption and the abuse of power” the report notes.
It further adds that “impunity remains a central obstacle to the rule of law, reconciliation and Sri Lanka’s sustainable peace and development, and remains the core risk factor for recurrence of further violations”.
Active reversal of progress on emblematic cases
A key concern of the report was not only the lack of progress in the most emblematic human rights cases in Sri Lanka over the past decade but the “active reversal in the form of acquittals on appeal and presidential pardon granted to those accused or convicted of grave violations”.
The report details how the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate Allegations of Political Victimization intervened in high-profile human rights cases, from 2005-2015, to push for alleged human rights abusers to be cleared of any charges and compensated. The report also notes that “a number of corruption and other related economic crimes cases between 2020 and 2022 were discontinued, following the withdrawal of charges or indictments on various technical grounds”.
Amongst the pardons granted by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa were war criminal Sunil Ratnayake, behind the Mirusuvil massacre that saw the killing of eight Tamil civilians, including three children, and former Navy Admiral, Wasantha Karannagoda, who is accused of being behind the abduction and disappearance of 11 youth.
"In more than two years since, it had still not presented a credible new roadmap on transitional justice towards accountability and reconciliation. Instead, accountability processes for past crimes were obstructed, perpetrators granted Presidential pardon and the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) and the Office for Reparations - the only two (out of four) transitional justice structures established - have failed to achieve the tangible results expected by victims and other stakeholders” the report notes.
The UN also raises alarm over the failure to investigate the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings noting;
“The full volumes of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry appointed to investigate the attacks have still not been released. The High Commissioner calls for this material to be made publicly available and for a follow-up independent and transparent investigation with international assistance to pursue further lines of inquiry, with the full participation of victims and their representatives”.
The abject failure of the OMP
The UN report also details the failure of the Office of Missing Persons, noting that, “although the purpose of the OMP is to trace and search for the missing, it has not been able to trace a single disappeared person or clarify the fate of the disappeared in meaningful ways, and its current orientation is to expedite the closure of files”.
The report adds that;
“The confidence and trust of the relatives of victims in the OMP as an independent and credible national mechanism has been severely eroded, particularly since 2020, following a series of problematic appointments of chairperson and commissioners, and needs to be re-established”.
However, the Tamil Families of the Disappeared have repeatedly protested against the OMP over the years, stressing the need for international action. The report acknowledges that in May 2022, one of the OMP’s commissioners, Shiraz Noordeen resigned and publicly stated that the office was unable to act independently or bring justice to victims.
The UN report further details the continued harassment faced by Families of the Disappeared by Sri Lanka’s security forces.
“On 20 March 2022, police used force against members of the Mullaitivu Disappeared Relatives' Association and other families of the disappeared who tried to carry out a protest during a visit of the former Prime Minister to the area” the report notes.
Families of the Disappeared have continued to protest for over 2,000 days with over 138 demonstrators passing away without knowing what happened to their loved ones.
The UN report also details “deepening militarization and lack of transparency and accountability in governance, which have embedded impunity for serious human rights violations and created an environment for corruption and the abuse of power”.
Highlighted in the report is that between 2020 and 2022, under President Rajapaksa, over 28 serving or former military officers gained positions in government ministries. President Wickremesinghe has not reversed this trend. Instead, under his government 42 entities, including the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board, Telecommunication Regulatory Commission and Sri Lanka Telecom, were brought under the oversight of Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence.
The High Commissioner stresses that during this dire economic crisis, Sri Lanka’s Defence military was allocated 373.1 billion rupees 15 percent of the Sri Lankan government’s total expenditure whereas the Health Ministry was only granted 158 billion rupees, a decrease of 6 billion rupees despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UN report also raises alarm over the expanding role of the military noting that security forces have been used to “guard public buildings, fuel stations and private residences” through section 12 of the Public Security Ordinance.
“These powers continue the militarized approach to law enforcement and expand the role of the military in policing functions” the report notes.
This militarisation is felt hardest in the North-East as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights notes;
The “OHCHR continues to receive reports of surveillance, intimidation, harassment of journalists, human rights defenders, families of the disappeared and persons involved in memorialization initiatives, by intelligence services, military and police, particularly in the North and East”.
The report adds:
“Families of the disappeared face surveillance, questioning, intimidation and unannounced visits by intelligence officers and the police, especially when they are actively involved in protests or memorialization”.
This harassment is particularly harsh for former female cadre and as the report details:
“Former LTTE cadres, including women, are subject to intensive surveillance, regardless of whether they have undergone the government’s ‘rehabilitation’ scheme or not. Women ex-combatants still face serious security risks, including sexual abuse and extortion, including by security forces and others”.
“The High Commissioner fears that without fundamental security-sector reforms and de-militarization of the North and the East, this pervasive culture of surveillance and oppressive environment for the people in these areas will continue”.
Detailed within this is the continued harassment of journalists.
Continued use of the PTA
A further concern raised is the continued use of Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act. Whilst the Sri Lankan Government had announced in June 2022 that it had been applying a de facto moratorium on the use of the PTA since March, the arrest of three Sinhala student activists on 18 August raised international condemnation.
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The UN report further documents the continued suffering of 47 long-term prisoners held under the PTA. The PTA has been widely condemned for its discriminatory legislation to target Tamil and Muslims and linked to cases of torture, police brutality and enforced disappearances.
Land grabs and Buddhisation
The High Commissioner’s report also shed light on increased military land grabs and attempts to expand existing military bases in the northern province. The High Commissioner also raises alarm over the imposition of Buddhist monuments noting:
“There has also been a more recent trend of land disputes in relation to construction of Buddhist heritage conservation or for forestry protection, mainly in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, which has further jeopardized reconciliation and created new conflicts”.
The report adds:
“In June 2022, the Army facilitated the dedication of a new Buddhist shrine in Kurunthur Malai, Mullaitivu, in violation of a Court order that prohibited any new edification in an area that is claimed by Hindu and Buddhist worshippers. On 14 July, Mullaitivu court ordered the removal of all new constructions, including a new Buddhist shrine”.
The High Commissioner maintains throughout the report that “more fundamental constitutional reform is needed to strengthen safeguards for effective separation of powers and devolution of political authority, and should be developed through broad based and consultative processes representative of all Sri Lankans”.
The report highlights that “in the absence of credible or effective domestic remedies, there have been some developments at the international level and in Member States (outside of Sri Lanka) to advance accountability”.
These include communications sent in “October and November 2021 to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court under Article 15 of the Rome Statute requesting that the Prosecutor exercise jurisdiction over crimes under international law in Sri Lanka.”
They also include “truth-seeking initiatives, such as the session at The People's Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists convened in The Hague, Netherlands in May 2022”.
The report also highlights sanctions imposed on Sri Lankan war criminals such as those adopted by the United States.
The report emphasises that “states are encouraged to explore further targeted sanctions against credibly alleged perpetrators of gross human rights violations and abuses”.
The report calls on Sri Lanka to:
- Take all necessary measures to guarantee people’s economic and social rights during this crisis and provide immediate relief for those most marginalised.
- To reduce considerably military spending and decisively tackle corruption and increase investment in health, social security, and education whilst also consider the human rights impact of any assistance programme.
- Undertake a broad-based consultative process representative of all Sri Lankans to advance constitutional reform and guarantee the independence of key institutions
- Prepare a comprehensive strategy on transitional justice and accountability, with a time-bound plan to implement outstanding commitments.
- Pursue investigations and prosecutions in emblematic cases of human rights violations
- Take steps to end the influence of the military on civilan spheres and reduce military presence in the Northern and Eastern province
- Return all private land held by the military and impartially adjudicate land disputes, including through interfaith dialogue about the erection of religious sites
- Ensure the new legislation to the Prevention of Terrorism Act and proposed laws on digital security fully complies with Sri Lanka’s international law obligations;
- Review the necessity and proportionality of Emergency Regulations and ensure proposed regulation of social media protect freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression.
The High commissioner makes the following recommendations for the human rights council and member states:
- For the OHCHR “to continue its enhanced monitoring and report regularly to the Council on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka”
- Encourage relevant thematic special procedures to examine and make recommendations on human rights dimensions of the economic crisis
- Reinforce the capacity provided in resolution 46/1 for OHCR to work on accountability for human rights violations and related crimes
- Cooperate in investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of international crimes
- Explore further targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans
- Support Sri Lanka in the investigation of economic crimes that impact on human rights and the tracing and recovery of stolen assets.
Read the full report here.