Zeid To Seek Clarity On Role Of Foreign Judges
By Easwaran Rutnam
To have or not to have foreign judges? That seems to be the question these days. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein is expected to seek an answer to that question when he visits Sri Lanka this week.
Zeid is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka on Friday and will have talks with the government and opposition and also meet local civil society.
The issue on foreign judges reignited last week after President Maithripala Sirisena told the BBC that he will not agree to have foreign judges in the domestic accountability process on the war.
However, days later Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told Chanel 4 that the government has not ruled out international involvement in the domestic process.
The President’s statement drew strong reactions from local civil society, the Tamil Diaspora and the international community who backed the new Sri Lanka government after it made commitments to investigate war crimes allegations.
One such commitment was through a resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last year.
In the resolution, the government had proposed to establish a judicial mechanism with a special counsel to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law, as applicable; affirms that a credible justice process should include independent judicial and prosecutorial institutions led by individuals known for their integrity and impartiality; and also affirms in this regard the importance of participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the special counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators.
So, President Sirisena’s statement that Sri Lanka will not invite foreign judges for the investigation drew strong criticism from many, including the United States, the main sponsor of the Geneva resolution.
The US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Keith Harper, said Sri Lanka must have foreign judges in the accountability process on the war.Harper, who was involved in talks with the Sri Lankan government when the resolution on Sri Lanka was drafted before it was submitted and eventually adopted by the UN Human Rights Council last October, said the accountability process can be credible only if foreign judges are involved.
The Global Tamil Forum (GTF), a leading Tamil Diaspora group which has been in talks with the government, said the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein must ensure that Sri Lanka will stick to its promise and fully implements all aspects of the UN Resolution on Sri Lanka without any exceptions.
The GTF said it was deeply concerned and disappointed by the recent comments of President Maithripala Sirisena (BBC, January 21, 2016) concerning his opposition to international involvement in ensuring justice for war crimes and human rights abuses committed by both parties to the conflict in Sri Lanka.
GTF said the President’s assertions are a direct refutation of the Resolution 30/1 passed in the UN Human Rights Council which Sri Lanka itself co-sponsored.
Apart from the resolution, a report by Zeid’s office also explicitly stated that an exclusively Sri Lankan judicial process cannot provide the much needed justice and accountability given its lack of capacity and independence or the statutes needed to prosecute such crimes. GTF noted that the victims and Tamil community in particular will consider international participation essential in their search for justice.
Local activists and organizations also condemned President Maithripala Sirisena’s statement saying that he appears to be indicating a withdrawal from the obligations the government had committed to in the consensus resolution passed at the 30th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in October 2015.
In a joint statement 144 local activists and organizations said it is worth recalling that the Government as a co-sponsor of the resolution in Geneva, was in a position to negotiate the exact terms of the resolution.
The statement also noted that on January 26, a few days after the Presidents interview to the BBC, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in an interview to Channel 4 appeared to be engaging in damage control when he stated that the Government will abide by commitments given in Geneva.
“These contradictions between the President and the Prime Minister are however not new and have been a constant feature of the Government’s public communications about their commitments under the resolution ever since it was passed,” the joint statement added.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York based human rights group said the Sri Lankan government should fulfill its commitments to the United Nations Human Rights Council by ensuring that foreign judges and prosecutors play a significant role in the mandated accountability mechanism for wartime abuses.
HRW also said that in line with its commitments, the government should be implementing its plans for a war crimes tribunal with international participation, a Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation, and Non-recurrence, and an Office on Missing Persons. HRW noted that progress on those commitments has been slow and not wholly transparent.
It also said that a task force on consultations on the Human Rights Council resolution has been established, but there is little public information about its mandate and terms of reference. Victims and their representative groups have not been informed about the consultation, leaving many feeling isolated and shut out from a process ostensibly intended to provide real justice to them.