During the 51st session of the UNHRC, western governments responded to a damning report by the UN High Commissioner, which revealed the “active reversal” of progress on accountability, and voiced alarm over Sri Lanka’s “persistent culture of impunity” and deepening militarisation.
Continued use of the PTA
A key concern raised by Western governments, was the continued use of Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), despite the country claiming a moratorium had been in effect on the act since March, three Sinhala student activists were arrested on 18 August.
“Recent violent attacks against those protesting peacefully is demonstrative of a persistent culture of impunity, as well as intimidation and surveillance of civil society and journalists” the Canadian ambassador stated.
The United States’ ambassador added to this point stating;
“We urge respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of assembly and expression. We call for accountability for protest-related violence. It is essential that the PTA align with international human rights obligations and commitments, to protect fair trial guarantees and other protections”.
The United Kingdom also stressed its “dismay” at the violent crackdown on peaceful protesters. The British ambassador told the assembly;
“We are deeply concerned by the unrest and the detention of protesters under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and continue to call for reform of the act”.
France similarly stressed the need for urgent reforms to the PTA. Ireland’s ambassador went further and maintained the need for “the Sri Lankan Government to apply a moratorium on the use of this Act until it is in full compliance with international human rights law”.
This is a position supported by the European Union which told the assembly:
“The EU condemns the unwarranted use of force against peaceful demonstrators and calls upon Sri Lanka to suspend the Prevention of Terrorism Act until it is in full compliance with international human rights law and standards and calls for accountability and immediate acts to end impunity”.
Concerns over militarisation
The United Kingdom further highlighted its concern over “continued reports of militarisation and intimidation impacting on communities in the North-East, including on Families of the Disappeared”.
The UN report raises alarm over the continued militarisation, which is felt particularly acutely in the North-East.
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 details.
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”.
The US ambassador stressed that the “rule of law, equal access to justice, independent institutions, transparency, and accountability are pillars of democratic systems”. She further highlighted her government’s support for the UNHRC’s continued attention and help survivors and the families of the disappeared.
The UN report raised alarm over the increasing militarisation of civil society functions highlighting 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 Irish ambassador further stressed the need for Sri Lankan government to address “long-standing grievances in order to secure durable peace, and build confidence with minority communities” as well as “embark on an inclusive national dialogue to advance the protection of human rights and revive the vital work on the truth and reconciliation and transitional justice processes”.
No progress on accountability
Western governments further raised alarm over the lack of progress on accountability, with UK noting its regret over the “limited progress made on accountability and justice as requested by UNHRC resolution 46/1”.
The British ambassador noted that given that the “domestic reconciliation promised in 2020 has not emerged”, it is vital that the “OHCHR’s work collecting and preserving evidence” continue.
A key concern of the UN 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
The US ambassador told the assembly that “a key step for the protection of human rights, it is also important to address long standing impunity and corruption in Sri Lanka”.
Violence against women and girls
Concern was also raised by Western governments over the rights of women and girls. The Canadian ambassador raised alarm stating that “Sri Lanka’s ongoing political and economic crises will lead to further deterioration of human rights, with the greatest impacts on the most vulnerable, including women, youth, and the elderly”.
The Irish ambassador further noting their concern over “recent reports by UNFPA of the increased vulnerability of women and girls to sexual and gender-based violence in Sri Lanka”.
The UN report highlights that sexual violence continues to be a real threat to former Tamil cadre, noting that;
“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 report maintains;
“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”.
Read the UN report here.
Read the full statements here.