Following excerpts adapted from the latest United Nations Human Rights Commissioner’s report on Sri Lanka Published today, 6th September 2023
Sri Lanka is still facing a difficult economic, social and political situation. The economic crisis continues to have a severe impact on the rights and well-being of many Sri Lankans. Financial support from international financial institutions and structural reforms are important steps to bring the economic crisis under control, but it is essential that the burden of reforms does not fall unequally upon some segments of society. Robust safety nets and social protection are required to shelter the most vulnerable from the negative spillovers of economic restructuring. It is vital to address the underlying factors in the crisis, including corruption, centralization of power, lack of transparency and institutional checks and balances, and the unresolved legacy of conflict, including accountability. The High Commissioner urges the international community to keep supporting Sri Lanka in its recovery, in line with obligations around international cooperation and assistance, while pressing for genuine progress in governance, transparency and accountability. Solutions will only be long-lasting if supported by society as a whole. Both the necessary economic reforms and the historical institutional challenges affecting Sri Lanka require tremendous political capital, broad consensus and the trust of society.
Lack of accountability at all levels remains the fundamental main human rights problem. Whether it refers to war crime atrocities, post-war emblematic cases, torture and deaths in police custody, excesses in crowd control, corruption and the abuse of power, Sri Lanka suffers from an extraordinary accountability deficit that unless addressed will drag the country further behind. The High Commissioner urges the Government and Sri Lankan political parties to strive for and deliver on long over-due democratic renewal, deeper institutional reforms and tangible progress on accountability, reconciliation and human rights. This would be particularly appropriate in a year that marks both the 75th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence and the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Last July marked also the 40th anniversary of “Black July”, the anti-Tamil pogroms in Colombo in 1983 that killed many hundreds and left thousands homeless, exponentially magnifying the ethnic divide and setting the scenario of armed conflict that defined Sri Lanka for the following three decades. OHCHR welcomes the intention of the President to dialogue with Tamil political parties and diaspora groups and advance reconciliation options through truth-seeking and other political solutions for devolution as presented in the 13thAmendment. However, accountability remains a crucial element of any genuine reconciliation agenda and any new transitional justice measures, including a truth commission, must meet international standards and the expectations of victims and their relatives to deliver lasting gains.
While it remains the responsibility of the Sri Lankan authorities to acknowledge past violations and undertake credible investigations and prosecutions, the international community can play an important complementary role, including through supporting relevant criminal justice investigations and prosecutions, the use of universal jurisdiction, and consideration of appropriate targeted sanctions against persons credibly implicated in serious human rights violations.
The High Commissioner reiterates the recommendations made in previous reports and those made by United Nations human rights mechanisms. OHCHR remains ready to provide technical assistance for the implementation of those recommendations, as required, including through the strengthening of its country presence to support the Government and people of Sri Lanka at this critical time.
OHCHR recommends that the Government of Sri Lanka:
(a) Take all necessary measures, within its available resources, to guarantee people’s economic and social rights during the economic crisis, on the basis of non-discrimination and protection of human rights, and strengthen social protection by increasing financing and extending it to cover emerging needs;
(b) Decisively tackle corruption, increase investments in health, social security and education, including through international cooperation and assess any potential human rights impact of international financial assistance programmes and take preventive measures to reduce it to the minimum;
(c) Create as a matter of priority an enabling environment for a successful and sustainable transitional justice process, including by ensuring the full, free and safe participation of victims, witnesses and civil society, ending all forms of harassment and unlawful and arbitrary surveillance against them, and supporting initiatives to acknowledge and memorialize the experience of victims;
(d) Develop and implement, in full consultation with victims and civil society, a coherent time-bound plan that connects the elements of truth, accountability, redress, and non-recurrence, drawing also on the work of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, and ensure that any truth-seeking process is developed through broad based consultations, complies with international norms, standards and best practice, and is complemented by an independent ad hoc special court;
(e) Pursue other transitional justice measures, including strengthening the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations to their full potential, and adopt institutional and other measures preventing violations in the future;
(f) Undertake comprehensive security sector reform, including considerably reducing military spending, vetting, and reducing military presence in areas affected by armed conflict;
(g) Take all necessary measures to increase women’s participation in political life, including in decision-making regarding the economic crisis, at the national, provincial and local levels, including by ensuring respect of the 25 per cent quota for women’s representation in local government, combating harmful stereotypes, and protecting politically active women from harassment and violence;
(h) Make public relevant documentation concerning violations of the past, including reports of Commissions of Inquiry, and documentation concerning those taken into custody of the State;
(i) Engage and cooperate with OHCHR in relation to advancing work on accountability, including through sharing relevant information and evidence and permitting OHCHR to visit Sri Lanka in pursuance of the mandate under Resolution 51/1;
(j) Review practices in departments dealing with archaeology, forestry, irrigation, and other services regularly implicated in land disputes. Impartially and transparently adjudicate land disputes, particularly those with an intercommunity/interreligious aspect;
(k) Ensure that new legislation replacing the Prevention of Terrorism Act and regulating broadcasting media fully comply with Sri Lanka’s international law obligations; observe a strict moratorium on use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and continue expediting the release of those detained and imprisoned for a long period under the Act;
(l) Accelerate investigations and prosecutions in emblematic cases of human rights violations, as well as the Easter Sunday bombings, in compliance with international human rights standards, with international assistance, and ensure the full participation of victims and their representatives;
(m) Ensure the right to political participation and the free expression of voters through free and fair elections at all levels of government;
(n) Review and amend in accordance with international human rights requirements of legality, necessity, proportionality and non-discrimination laws which unduly restrict freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association;
(o) Invite OHCHR to strengthen its country presence and provide technical assistance to authorities and civil society in Sri Lanka.
The High Commissioner reiterates the recommendations made in reports to the Human Rights Council and Member States in 2021 and 2022 and further recommends that they:
(a) Prioritize activities that help create an enabling environment and lay the foundation for effective and meaningful transitional justice processes, taking into account the views the views of all stakeholders, particularly victims;
(b) Support transitional justice measures insofar as they are in compliance with international norms and standards and take into account the needs, priorities and expectations of victims and affected communities;
(c) Cooperate in investigating and prosecuting alleged perpetrators of international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka through judicial proceedings in national jurisdictions, including under accepted principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction, through relevant international networks and in cooperation with victims and their representatives;
(d) Explore further targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans against those credibly alleged to have perpetrated gross international human rights violations or serious humanitarian law violations;
(e) Support Sri Lanka in the investigation of economic crimes that have an impact on human rights and in the tracing, recovery and return of stolen assets, and in ensuring that returned assets are allocated in an accountable, transparent and participatory manner that contributes to the realization of human rights.
The High Commissioner recommends to all United Nations agencies, funds and programs operating in Sri Lanka and to international financial institutions that they:
(a) Take into account Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations with regards economic, social and cultural rights and pay special attention to issues of accountability, governance and diversity when negotiating or implementing support programs;
(b) Support the design and implementation of transitional justice and reconciliation measures in compliance with international standards and the resolutions of the Human Rights Council;
(c) Ensure broad cooperation and engagement with OHCHR’s work on accountability in Sri Lanka, including that OHCHR is given full access to materials held within the United Nations system concerning violations and related crimes that have occurred in Sri Lanka.