The Clock Starts Ticking
- Pillay’s 27 point update draws strong reactions
- HR chief counters reference to UNHCR baseline survey
- Government hits back
By Easwaran Rutnam
The government was put on notice last week by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to either effectively address human rights related concerns by March 2014 or face an international investigation.
In a 27-point oral update to the UN Human Rights Council, Pillay had detailed out the failures of the government on various issues.
The government, however, was quick to reject her concerns, including her warning of a possible international probe, saying she has no mandate to make such a comment.
Pillay’s comments were backed later by several countries including the United States, the EU, Britain and Norway. Sri Lanka had the support of its closest allies in the form of China, Russia, Pakistan, Venezuela and Brazil.
Outside of her 27 points in the update submitted to the Human Rights Council, Pillay made reference to a recent UNHCR baseline survey cited by the government as providing a favourable assessment of the outlook of IDPs on a number of issues including the presence of the military, safety and security.
She said that, according to the same report, almost 30% of those interviewed responded negatively when asked how they felt about the military presence, with the highest levels of negative response in Kilinochchi (51%) and Mullaitivu (37%) districts.
Furthermore, she said 57% reported that military installations or posts were less than one mile away from their homes and 87% of respondents reported that the military ‘registered’ their family at least once, in addition to civilian government registration. Almost 30% of respondents highlighted that the military visited their households (sometimes repeatedly) for reasons other than registration, all of which points to the high level of military presence and intrusion in civilian life.
However, with regard to the vulnerability of women and girls to sexual harassment and abuse in the North, as referred to in Pillay’s update, the government, while deploring all such acts of violence against women and girls, said the inference that the presence of the military contributes to insecurity of women and girls in the former conflict affected areas is baseless and disingenuous.
Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Ravinatha Aryasinghe noted that a comprehensive study of incidents of sexual offences which have occurred in the North had revealed that out of a total of 375 reported incidents during the conflict and in the post conflict periods (2007-2012), only 11 incidents (involving 17 security forces personnel) can be attributed to the security forces.
In her oral update, Pillay noted that during her recent visit to Sri Lanka she had detected no new or comprehensive effort to independently, or credibly, investigate the allegations which have been of concern to the Human Rights Council.
She also said she received little new information about the Courts of Inquiry appointed by the army and navy to further investigate the allegations of civilian casualties and summary executions that were raised in the LLRC report and Channel Four documentaries. Pillay urged that these reports be made public to allow them to be evaluated.
The High Commissioner stressed that appointing the armed forces to investigate itself does not inspire confidence in a country where so many past investigations and commissions of inquiry have foundered.
She also said that the Human Rights Council endorsed her recommendation for “the establishment of a truth-seeking mechanism as an integral part of a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to transitional justice”, but the government has so far not responded positively to her offer of assistance.
As the 24th session of the Council drew to a close last week, the EU made the strongest statement on Sri Lanka in response to Pillay’s oral update.
Lithuanian Ambassador Rytis Paulauskas, speaking on behalf of the EU, said that the EU is concerned that senior figures in Sri Lanka, rather than building on the potential of cooperating with Pillay’s office, have attempted to undermine its work.
“We are dismayed at the reports that, having facilitated a wide reaching visit for the High Commissioner last month, some government officials in Sri Lanka and other commentators appear to be coordinating a campaign of disinformation in an attempt to discredit the High Commissioner or to distract from the core messages of her visit.
The EU renews its support to the High Commissioner and calls on Sri Lanka to make use of the extensive assistance offered by the Office to ensure accountability for past and ongoing human rights violations and to cooperate in further improving the human rights situation in the country,” the EU said.
Canada followed with similar concerns. The Canadian delegation said that its government expects the Government of Sri Lanka to respond constructively to the observations and constructive recommendations made in Pillay’s report, and to foster public trust through the assistance offered to it.
“Concrete and genuine action, including through implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC report, is needed. Canada is particularly disturbed by reports of surveillance and intimidation of those who met, or planned to meet with, the High Commissioner.
These kinds of reprisals are on the rise and unacceptable, and further threaten freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. Canada is discouraged that Sri Lanka continues to ignore calls for it to establish a credible and independent investigation into widespread allegations of humanitarian law and human rights violations by both sides during the nearly 30-year civil conflict.
This is a key issue that the Government of Sri Lanka must address to enhance the prospects for long term stability and prosperity. While Sri Lanka’s achievements in physical reconstruction of the Northern parts of the country are commendable, these projects alone will not ensure reconciliation and national stability,” Canada said.
The Canadians went further by requesting the High Commissioner to comment on specific activities her office plans to undertake to monitor the human rights situation in Sri Lanka ahead of her written report to the Council in March 2014.
Pillay has already said that she will submit a comprehensive report to the Council in March 2014 and analysts are of the view that the report will lead the way to another resolution on Sri Lanka which will have the backing of the Unites States.
At last week’s session, the US echoed the High Commissioner’s concerns, in particular regarding restrictions on freedom of expression, attacks on human rights defenders and journalists, and interference with the judiciary in Sri Lanka.
“We also share the High Commissioner’s concerns regarding increasing violence and discrimination against religious minorities, a climate of impunity for human rights and humanitarian law violations, and restrictions on peaceful assembly and association, including the shootings of unarmed protesters in Weliweriya,” the US delegation said.
However, attempts to put Sri Lanka on the agenda of the Human Rights Council at the March 2014 session will have strong opposition from China and Russia while India, Sri Lanka’s closest neighbor, will most likely take a neutral stand.
Speaking at last week’s session, India welcomed the successful culmination of elections to three Provincial Councils, including the Northern Provincial Council, saying the high voter turnout and the enthusiastic participation of various political parties demonstrate the continuing commitment of the people of Sri Lanka to democratic values and elections, including for the Provincial Councils.
“The Government of Sri Lanka has honored its commitment to the international community to hold elections to the Northern Provincial Council. Similarly, we look forward to the implementation by the Government of Sri Lanka of other important commitments made to the international community, including the full implementation of the 13th Amendment and going beyond it,” the Indian delegation said.
Japan was one of the countries that put its weight behind Sri Lanka to hold elections in the North despite pressure from within the government.
In a statement to the Council the Japanese said that national reconciliation continues to be an important and challenging issue in Sri Lanka and Japan appreciates the important progress to this end with the holding of the Northern Provincial Council election.
“At the same time, many outstanding issues remain. We strongly hope that the government will implement the LLRC Action Plan and make efforts toward recovery. It would be beneficial for Sri Lanka to make use of the support of the Office of the High Commissioner in this process,” the Japanese delegation said.
The government will now start lobbying support ahead of the March 2014 Human Rights Council session and will look to use the Commonwealth summit in November to cement its case that Sri Lanka is finally at peace.