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UN Human Rights Council Outlines Sri Lanka Abuses, But Demurs on Action

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Writing in Just Security, Professor Kate Cronin-Furman details how the recently passed UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution displays the inability and unwillingness of the UNHRC to impose an accountability model on Sri Lanka but also highlights “a genuine desire to grapple with persistent impunity and the worsening human rights situation”.

She notes that whilst the “anaemic actions it proposes, highlights the profound limitations on the Human Rights Council”; “read optimistically, the new resolution opens the possibility that the mandated 18 months of enhanced scrutiny and evidence-gathering will improve the chances that foreign countries might prosecute those most responsible under the principle of universal jurisdiction”.

“It’s not the robust independent mechanism victims campaigned for, or the referral to the ICC that they deserve, but it is a potential path to justice”, she adds.


Abusers’ Leverage Over Council’s Path

In her piece, Cronin-Furman highlights the failures of the UNHRC noting that its “mandate and membership make it far less willing to take measures that might be read as a challenge to a state’s sovereignty”.

This allowed Sri Lanka to exert significant leverage over the Council’s path and enabled the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration to establish “a weak Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to deflect calls for an international inquiry”, despite “growing international concern over the worsening human rights situation in 2012 and 2013”. Whilst Tamil victim communities persistently pointed to “the government’s categorical denials of war crimes as a clear indication that it would not seek accountability”, the Human Rights Council would pass “resolutions calling on Sri Lanka to pursue transitional justice domestically”.

“If it should have been apparent in 2012 that domestic accountability was not likely, that reality is acutely obvious today” she notes.


Accountability Delayed

In her piece, she highlights the report published by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) which documents “increasing militarization of the government, targeting of civil society, and the calculated use of COVID-19 restrictions to repress the Tamil and Muslim communities”. The report also highlighted the “risk of recurrence of serious human rights violations posed by the entrenchment of impunity”.

Reflecting on the recently passed resolution, her piece notes that the tension between council members calling for domestic-led action in opposition to victim communities and international civil society who called to “give the operative clauses some teeth”.

In this respect, she highlights that the word “collect” was a critical addition, following determined lobbying from Tamil and international advocacy organizations. In the lead up to the council session, there were unprecedented displays of solidarity between all major Tamil political parties and civil society groups who signed a joint letter requesting that council members escalate the push for accountability out of the Human Rights Council to the General Assembly or Security Council.

The failure to act upon these has left much of the Tamil victim communities frustrated, “after 12 years of fighting to keep Sri Lanka on the agenda, that engagement with the council appears to have no endgame”.


Read Cronin-Furman's full piece here.

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