In her oral update during the 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet warned that Sri Lanka’s current “social, economic and governance challenges” were indicative of the “corrosive impact that militarisation and the lack of accountability continue to have on fundamental rights, civic space, democratic institutions, social cohesion and sustainable development."
Her speech detailed the deterioration of human rights in Sri Lanka and maintained that her office was working to “implement the accountability-related aspects of Resolution 46/1”. Thus far they have “developed an information and evidence repository with nearly 120,000 individual items already held by the UN”. She urged member states to act to ensure that the budget process provides the necessary support for her office to complete this work. She also encouraged council members to pay “close attention to developments in Sri Lanka, and to seek credible progress in advancing reconciliation, accountability and human rights."
This comes as Tamil political representatives and victim communities are continuing their call for Sri Lanka to be referred to the International Criminal Court, as they highlight the inability of domestic mechanisms to deliver accountability and justice.
Harassment of journalists
In her speech Bachelet noted her regret that “surveillance, intimidation and judicial harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and families of the disappeared has not only continued, but has broadened to a wider spectrum of students, academics, medical professionals and religious leaders critical of government policies."
Since Gotabaya Rajapaksa took office in 2019, there has been an escalating crackdown in the North-East and across the island where "several peaceful protests and commemorations have been met with excessive use of force and the arrest or detention of demonstrators in quarantine centres," she notes.
She also raised alarm over proposed new regulations on civil society groups which could “further tighten restrictions on fundamental freedoms”. She maintained the need for these discussions to be held with public scrutiny.
Sri Lanka currently ranks 127th out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. Tamil journalists have faced the brunt of the police’s crackdown facing intimidation and arbitrary arrests.
Bachelet further highlighted her concerns over recen developments in judicial proceedings, including the failure to prosecute former Navy commander Wasantha Karannagoda who was complicit in the enforced disappearance of 11 Tamil youth in 2008 and 2009. The Sri Lankan Attorney General's decision to not prosecute the former commander, is another instance where the state have failed to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes.
Moreover, Bachelet also noted that the recent pardon of convicted murderer Duminda Silva, "risks eroding confidence in the rule of law and judicial process." Silva was formerly sentenced to life in prison from 2016 after the Colombo High Court convicted him for involvement in the murder of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra and three of his supporters during local elections in Colombo in 2011. Gotabaya Rajapaksa pardoned Silva in June this year before appointing him as Chairman of the National Housing Development Authority.
Prevention of Terrorism Act
In her statement, Bachelet expressed her deep concern over the continued use of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which has been used to detain individuals without charge, including lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah and poet Ahnaf Jazeem, who currently remain in detention. She called for an "immediate moratorium on the use of the Act, and that a clear timeline be set for its comprehensive review or repeal."
Earlier this year, the European Union passed a resolution similarly condemning Sri Lanka’s retention of the legislation and calling on the EU Council to consider suspending GSP+ trading preferences for Sri Lanka.
Read the full statement here.