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Sri Lanka: Landmark UN Resolution Promotes Justice

Concerns of Government Retaliation Against Rights Advocates

In this April 6, 2015  file photo, Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil women sit holding placards with portraits of their missing relatives as they protest out side a railway station in Colombo, Sri Lanka. © AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, File

(New York) – The United Nations Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka is a victory for victims of abuses to help them obtain information, accountability, and justice, Human Rights Watch said today. The UN and member countries should emphasize to Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that any reprisals against activists who campaigned for the resolution would have serious consequences.

Resolution 46/1, adopted on March 23, 2021, establishes a powerful new accountability process to collect, analyze, and preserve evidence of international crimes committed in Sri Lanka for use in future prosecutions. The Sri Lankan government vigorously opposed the resolution, and there have been numerous reports of threats and harassment against rights activists in recent months.

“The Human Rights Council’s landmark resolution on Sri Lanka shows that if justice is denied, the UN will act to provide accountability for atrocities,” said John Fisher, Geneva director. “When governments fail to respect their international law obligations, as Sri Lanka has, it’s crucial for the Human Rights Council to respond with substantive measures like these.”

Families of abuse victims have struggled for years to learn what happened to their loved ones and to see those responsible held to account.

The resolution was adopted in response to a devastating report in January by the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, on the failure of successive Sri Lankan governments to provide justice and accountability. It establishes a dedicated new capacity within the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights “to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence” of gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Sri Lanka, and “to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction.”

After many years in which there was barely any progress on accountability, this measure brings justice closer for international crimes committed in Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch said. The high commissioner is mandated to deliver a report to the Human Rights Council after 18 months, including “options for advancing accountability.”

In her January report, the high commissioner also warned of “clear early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation and a significantly heightened risk of future violations.” Since coming to power in November 2019, the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has targeted vulnerable minorities with discriminatory laws and subjected victims’ groups, human rights defenders, and civil society groups to a renewed climate of fear and intimidation.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was defense secretary in the government of his brother, former president (now prime minister) Mahinda Rajapaksa, between 2005 and 2015. Sri Lankan government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) committed numerous war crimes and human rights abuses during the civil war that ended in 2009. The Rajapaksas and other senior members of the current government were implicated in alleged war crimes, particularly during the final months of the conflict. The government has also blocked accountability for other serious violations, including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

The core group of states that brought this resolution – the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro, and North Macedonia – have stood in support of human rights and accountability in Sri Lanka, and upheld the credibility of the Human Rights Council by advancing justice for serious violations of international law, Human Rights Watch said. Altogether 22 Human Rights Council members voted for the resolution, while 11 voted against, and 14 abstained. More than 40 countries co-sponsored the resolution, which remains open for co-sponsorship.

Among the countries that voted in favor or co-sponsored the resolution are Sri Lanka’s largest trading partners, including the United States and members of the European Union. The resolution was introduced by the United Kingdom, which is Sri Lanka’s largest source of foreign direct investment. These governments should continue to use their influence to press for the protection of human rights in Sri Lanka, including respect for minorities and religious rights and an end to threats and intimidation against victims’ groups and human rights activists.

UN member states should now follow through and ensure that the high commissioner’s recommendations are carried out, including by imposing targeted sanctions on those allegedly responsible for grave violations and pursuing justice for international crimes in national courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

“The Human Rights Council resolution is an important step toward delivering justice for terrible crimes, but it’s critical to remain focused on the violations being committed in Sri Lanka today and the clear risk of future abuses,” Fisher said. “Victims’ groups, civil society, and minority communities still need support and protection through sustained international engagement to uphold human rights in Sri Lanka.”

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