Sri Lanka’s previous foreign minister liked to tell the United Nations Human Rights Council that his government was, “making haste slowly,” in acting on the council’s October 2015 resolution calling for reforms, justice, and accountability, particularly for the victims of the country’s decades-long civil war. The phrase was meant to capture the sincerity of intent and political will, but that politics got in the way of making good on the promises.
That refrain has become a staple. The Sri Lankan delegation to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) from November 15-17, headed by Deputy Minister of Policy Planning and Economic Development Harsha de Silva, essentially repeated this phrase over and again.
While the government has made some progress, most of the promises remain unfulfilled. Just ahead of the UPR, the government announced that it was operationalizing the much-delayed Office of Missing Persons, one of four key transitional justice mechanisms, and funds had been budgeted. Tellingly, there was no budgetary allowance for the other three. And, while the UPR team referred to draft legislation on a truth-seeking mechanism and a reparations mechanism, they stayed silent on the fourth: a special court with authority to prosecute, which was a key plank in the October 2015 resolution.
At the UPR the Sri Lankan delegation accepted many recommendations and voluntarily included some on its own initiative. However, it would not commit to a schedule to implement the resolution.
Other pressing human rights issues like the repeal of discriminatory marriage and same-sex laws or security sector reform received a cursory nod, with no action plan for carrying out reforms.
At the end of the UPR session, I asked the head of the Sri Lankan delegation why there was no mention of a special court, or a commitment to repealing discriminatory laws. His polite answer was, essentially, we are making haste slowly. He cited domestic political considerations, despite his government’s resounding majority in parliament.
As Sri Lanka heads toward the March 2018 Human Rights Council session, this refrain will simply not be enough for victims. The government’s credibility – and that of the Human Rights Council – depends on moving from promises to action.