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UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet during a press conference at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, September 4, 2019. © 2019 Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP

(Geneva) – The United Nations Human Rights Council, at its upcoming session, should act on the recommendations of the UN high commissioner for human rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The council should adopt a new resolution to enhance scrutiny of Sri Lanka’s deteriorating human rights situation and pursue accountability for past and recent violations.

In her report released on January 27, 2021, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said she was “alarmed” by Sri Lanka’s deteriorating human rights situation and set out steps that the Human Rights Council should take to confront the growing risk of future violations. Since the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has withdrawn its support for the 2015 consensus resolution seeking justice and reconciliation, and shown general disregard for upholding basic human rights, the council should act to protect those most at risk and advance accountability for grave international crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

“The UN high commissioner’s report highlights Sri Lanka’s egregious record of complete impunity for appalling crimes, and very disturbing developments under the Rajapaksa administration,” said John Fisher, Geneva director. “The Human Rights Council has given Sri Lanka every opportunity to address these issues over many years, and now greater international involvement is needed to help protect vulnerable groups and hold those responsible for grave international crimes to account.”

During the final months of the civil war between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which ended in May 2009, both sides committed atrocities that killed tens of thousands of civilians. UN investigators found that these atrocities may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Grave abuses included summary executions, torture, rape, and the murder and enforced disappearance of journalists and activists.

Many senior figures implicated in those abuses returned to government following the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019. The UN high commissioner found that “Sri Lanka remains in a state of denial about the past, with truth-seeking efforts aborted and the highest State officials refusing to make any acknowledgement of past crimes.”

The high commissioner described “a deepening and accelerating militarization of civilian government functions.” Since 2020, she wrote, “The President has appointed at least 28 serving or former military and intelligence personnel to key administrative posts,” including senior military officials who have been alleged in UN reports to be implicated in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. Among them are the defense secretary, Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, who commanded the 53rd Division at the end of the civil war, and the chief of defense staff, Gen. Shavendra Silva, who is banned from traveling to the United States due to his alleged involvement in extrajudicial killings.

In the 2015 Human Rights Council resolution 30/1, the previous Sri Lankan government agreed to adopt measures to ensure truth telling, reparations, security sector reform, and justice through a hybrid mechanism including international investigators, prosecutors, and judges. In February 2020, three months after Rajapaksa won the presidential election, his government renounced those commitments.

The high commissioner drew attention in her report to the growing dangers vulnerable minority groups face. Rajapaksa set up an advisory council on governance consisting of senior Buddhist monks, established a task force on the sensitive issue of archaeological heritage management that consisted almost entirely of Sinhalese members, and under the pretext of Covid-19, mandated cremations for all deaths, groundlessly preventing Muslims from practicing their own burial rites.

The high commissioner described how counterterrorism laws have been used to “stifle legitimate activities” of civil society organizations. She noted that as of December, over 40 civil society organizations had approached the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights with reports of harassment, surveillance, and repeated scrutiny by various security services.

Bachelet expressed concern that the 20th amendment to the constitution, adopted in October, “has fundamentally eroded the independence of key commissions and institutions, including the HRCSL [Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka], the Election Commission, the National Police Commission and the judiciary.”

On January 21, Sri Lanka announced a new commission of inquiry to examine the findings of previous domestic inquiries, which the government proposes as an alternative to Human Rights Council action. Bachelet noted that “[n]umerous commissions of inquiry appointed by successive governments failed to credibly establish truth and ensure accountability.” She said that the current government “has proactively obstructed or sought to stop ongoing investigations and criminal trials to prevent accountability for past crimes.”

A commission appointed in January 2020 “intervened in favour of military intelligence officers in ongoing judicial proceedings … withholding documentary evidence, [and] threatening prosecutors with legal action.” Meanwhile, “not a single emblematic case has been brought to a successful conclusion or conviction.”

Bachelet concluded that “trends emerging over the past year … represent clear early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation and a significantly heightened risk of future violations, and therefore calls for strong preventive action.” She said that once again the Human Rights Council is at “a critical turning point” in its dealings with Sri Lanka. Twice previously the council supported domestic accountability and reconciliation initiatives. “The Government has now demonstrated its inability and unwillingness to pursue a meaningful path towards accountability for international crimes and serious human rights violations.”

Bachelet acknowledged that the current situation in Sri Lanka represents a stark test to the UN: “[T]he trends highlighted in this report represent yet again an important challenge for the United Nations, including the Human Rights Council, in terms of its prevention function.” An independent review of the UN’s actions in Sri Lanka in 2009 concluded there had been a systemic failure of the prevention agenda. “The international community must not repeat those mistakes, nor allow a precedent that would undermine its efforts to prevent and achieve accountability for grave violations in other contexts,” she wrote.

She said the Human Rights Council should enhance the high commissioner’s office’s monitoring and reporting on the situation in Sri Lanka, including on accountability, and “support a dedicated capacity to collect and preserve evidence for future accountability processes, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial proceedings in Member States.” She also urged UN member countries to take action, by pursuing prosecutions of alleged Sri Lankan perpetrators in national courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction, and by imposing targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against alleged perpetrators.

“This strong and clear report by the high commissioner leaves no room for doubt about the situation in Sri Lanka, or what is at stake when the Human Rights Council considers a new resolution in a few weeks’ time,” Fisher said. “Member states should draft and adopt a strong resolution that protects vulnerable people in Sri Lanka, advances justice for international crimes, and shows that the council is able to respond to challenges posed by the Sri Lankan government.”

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