During the 51st UNHRC session, Western governments reacted to a damning report by the UN High Commissioner, which revealed the “active reversal” of progress on accountability, and expressed concern about the “persistent culture of impunity” and the deepening of militarization in Sri Lanka.
Continuous use of the PTA
One of the main concerns raised by Western governments was the continued use of Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), although the country says a moratorium has been in place on the law since March, three Sinhalese student activists were arrested on 18 August.
“Recent violent attacks against peaceful protesters testify to a persistent culture of impunity, as well as intimidation and surveillance of civil society and journalists,” said the Canadian Ambassador.
The US Ambassador added to this point by stating;
“We call for respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of assembly and expression. We call for accountability for the violence linked to the protests. It is essential that the PTA aligns with international human rights obligations and commitments, to protect fair trial guarantees and other protections.”
The UK also underlined its “dismay” at the violent crackdown on peaceful protesters. The British Ambassador told the assembly;
“We are deeply concerned about the unrest and the detention of protesters under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and continue to call for law reform.”
France also underlined the need for urgent reforms of the PTA. The Irish Ambassador went further and maintained the need for “the Sri Lankan government to enforce a moratorium on the use of this law until it is fully in line with international human rights law. the man “.
This is a position supported by the European Union which told the assembly:
“The EU condemns the unjustified use of force against peaceful protesters and calls on Sri Lanka to suspend the Prevention of Terrorism Act until it is fully in line with international human rights law and standards rights, and calls for accountability and immediate action to end impunity”.
Worries about militarization
The UK further underlined its concern over “continuing reports of militarization and intimidation affecting communities in the North East, including the families of the missing”.
The UN report is alarmed at the continuation of militarization, felt particularly acutely in the Northeast.
“OHCHR continues to receive reports of surveillance, intimidation, harassment of journalists, human rights defenders, families of the disappeared and those involved in memorialization initiatives, by intelligence services , the army and the police, especially in the North and East,” the report details.
The report adds:
“Families of the disappeared are watched, interrogated, intimidated and visited without notice by intelligence and police officials, particularly when they are actively involved in protests or commemorations.”
The US Ambassador stressed that “the rule of law, equal access to justice, independent institutions, transparency and accountability are the pillars of democratic systems”. She further underscored her government’s support for the HRC’s continued attention and assistance to survivors and families of the disappeared.
The UN report sounded the alarm about the growing militarization of civil society functions by highlighting this;
“Between 2020 and 2022, under President Rajapaksa, more than 28 serving or former military officers have secured positions in government ministries. President Wickremesinghe has not reversed this trend. Instead, under his government, 42 entities, including the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission and Sri Lanka Telecom, were placed under the supervision of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence”.
The Irish Ambassador further stressed the need for the Sri Lankan government to address “long-standing grievances in order to secure lasting peace and build trust with minority communities” as well as to “engage in an inclusive national dialogue to advance the protection of human rights and reinvigorate vital work on truth and reconciliation and transitional justice processes”.
No progress on accountability
Western governments have further raised alarm at the lack of progress on accountability, with the UK regretting the “limited progress made on accountability and justice, as called for by HRC resolution 46/1”.
The British Ambassador noted that as “the promised national reconciliation in 2020 has not materialized”, it is vital that “OHCHR’s work in collecting and preserving evidence” continues.
One of the main concerns of the UN report was not just the lack of progress in Sri Lanka’s most emblematic human rights cases over the past decade, but “the active reversal in the form of acquittals on appeal and presidential pardons granted to those accused or convicted of serious 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 to 2015, to press for alleged perpetrators of human rights abuses be cleared of all charges and compensated. The report also notes that “a number of corruption and other related economic crime cases between 2020 and 2022 have been dropped, following the withdrawal of charges or indictments on various technical grounds.”
Among the pardons granted by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa were war criminals Sunil Ratnayakebehind the Mirusuvil massacre which saw the death of eight Tamil civilians, including three children, and a former naval admiral, Wasantha Karannagodawho is accused of being behind the kidnapping and disappearance of 11 young people
The US ambassador told the gathering that “a key step for the protection of human rights, it is also important to fight long-standing impunity and corruption in Sri Lanka”.
Violence against women and girls
Concerns have also been raised by Western governments regarding the rights of women and girls. The Canadian Ambassador sounded the alarm saying that “the ongoing political and economic crises in Sri Lanka will lead to a further deterioration of human rights, with the greatest impacts on the most vulnerable, especially women, the young and the old”.
The Irish Ambassador further expressed concern over “recent reports from UNFPA on 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 cadres, noting that;
“Former LTTE cadres, including women, are subject to intensive surveillance whether or not they have completed the government’s ‘rehabilitation’ programme.. Women ex-combatants continue to 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 the demilitarization of the North and East, this pervasive culture of surveillance and oppressive environment for the populations of these regions will continue.”
Read the UN report here.
Read full statements here.