The Sri Lankan government lambasted a report from the United Nations human rights chief last week, as it sent a response which defended accused war criminals, denied reports of rights abuses and slammed accusations of ongoing discrimination.
In an almost 20-page response sent to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a draft version of which has been seen by the Tamil Guardian, the Sri Lankan government called her report “speculative, presumptive and unsubstantiated opinions”.
The response was sent to the United Nations on Wednesday, just hours before it was publicly released, following days of intense deliberations between senior Sri Lankan government officials. The Sunday Times reported that Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa was “angered” by the report and had “summoned a meeting at his Secretariat last Monday to obtain the views of the participants for a strong response”.
UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s report warned of the “seeds of future violence and conflict” in Sri Lanka, as she called for member states to consider “asset freezes and travel bans” on Sri Lankan officials accused of human rights abuses and for the country to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Ahead of its public release, the Sri Lankan government responded directly to Bachelet by accusing her of making “sweeping, impetuous conclusions”.
'Majoritarian and exclusionary rhetoric'
The response began by rejecting the report’s findings that “Sri Lanka’s armed conflict grew out of progressively deepening discrimination and marginalisation of the country’s minorities, particularly the Tamils”. “Any attempt to attribute the war waged by the LTTE to alleged “discrimination and marginalization” of Tamils, therefore, should only be perceived as an attempt to justify and legitimize the ruthless terrorism unleashed by the LTTE,” said the government.
“It is reminded that the conflict that took place in Sri Lanka was between the Government forces and a ruthless terrorist outfit,” it continued.
Sri Lanka went on to “categorically rejects unsubstantiated opinions expressed in the report,” including the deep concern in the report over “the increased use of ethno-nationalistic and majoritarian rhetoric and symbols by the President and other senior Government figures, which define public policies that appear to exclusively reflect the perceived interests of the Sinhala Buddhist majority, and with minimal consideration for minority communities”.
“Ethnic and religious minority communities are left behind and excluded in such official discourse, and often perceived and treated as posing a threat,” it added. “Such an approach has serious negative implications for reconciliation, peacebuilding and religious tolerance, and carries the seeds of future violence and conflict.”
Rajapaksa receives blessings from Sinhala Buddhist monks last year.
Sri Lanka chose to respond by rejecting those comments and instead said “the role and contribution of Buddhism in shaping Sri Lanka’s over 2500 years of history has been immense, and the Buddhist teachings of peace and tolerance have helped different faiths and beliefs to flourish and harmoniously co-exist side by side in Sri Lanka for thousands of years.”
“This has been reflected in Article 9 of the Constitution which requires the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana,” the draft response added.
'No proven allegations'
Sri Lanka was more fervent in its denial of war crimes and atrocities committed by its armed forces, particularly with regards to the final phase of the armed conflict in 2009, which saw tens of thousands of Tamils massacred.
“Sri Lanka’s military is a disciplined entity tasked to protect the country’s territorial integrity,” it claimed, stating that the military offensive was “legitimate action”.
“Civilians who fled the clutches of the LTTE during the final phase of the war were accommodated in welfare villages,” Sri Lanka added, referring to the camps where more than 300,000 Tamils were detained. The Times of London noted at the time that as many as 1,400 people were dying in those camps every week.
It went on to slam previous UN reports which detailed the atrocities committed in 2009, stating it “does not extend any credence or legitimacy” to them. In particular, Sri Lanka defended the current army chief Shavendra Silva and defence secretary Kamal Gunaratne, maintaining that “no factually substantiated or proven allegations of human rights violations exist”. This is despite Silva being barred from entry to the USA for his role in overseeing war crimes, including the execution surrendering of Tamils.
The Sri Lankan response also rejected “the allegation of militarization of civilian Government functions”. “These senior officials have been picked based on their expertise and professional qualifications, having regard to giving effective implementation of Government policies,” it claimed.
On Sri Lanka’s policy of forcibly cremating suspected coronavirus victims, despite Islamic belief and World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance, Colombo continued to assert that “the protocol of cremation is adopted based exclusively on scientific and public health grounds”.
'Sweeping, impetuous conclusions'
“UNHCR is engaged in an exercise of building a negative perception of a Government that has only spent a few months in office,” Sri Lanka added, claiming the High Commissioner had made “sweeping, impetuous conclusions”.
It added there were “baseless forecasts” and “a wealth of misinformation”, and claimed it was an attempt “to mislead the United Nations and international community”. The Sri Lankan response concluded that the report had a “preconceived, politicized and prejudicial agenda which certain elements have relentlessly pursued to trigger such disproportionate and unwarranted measures against Sri Lanka”.
In the aftermath of the report release, Sri Lanka’s foreign secretary has made multiple remarks to the island's southern media, where he has repeatedly rejected the report's findings, hit out at the United Nations Human Rights Council, the United States and the Tamil diaspora, and claimed that thousands of forcibly disappeared Tamils are abroad “living somewhere”.
Meanwhile, foreign secretary, Jayanath Colombage who himself stands accused of being complicit in torture,
Claimed that his government was awaiting the text of a proposed consensus resolution from the Core Group – consisting of Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Montenegro and the UK, despite overwhelming calls for an international accountability mechanism to be mandated.
As Colombo-based diplomats signalled their willingness for a consensual resolution last week, international human rights groups lambasted the move, highlighting that Sri Lankan government has not shown any support for “an international process to end the cycle of impunity and advance accountability”.