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UN Rights Commissioner urges member states to consider targeted sanctions against Sri Lanka

By P.K.Balachandran | NewsIn Asia

Colombo, February 25: Michele Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in her report to the 49 th. Session of the UNHRC beginning on February 28, has slammed Sri Lanka for not implementing its pledge to establish war crimes accountability mechanisms, to trace the forcibly disappeared persons and provide succor to the victims’ families.  

According to an unedited version of the report titled “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka,” Bachelet says that when the Lankan government withdrew its co-sponsorship of resolution 40/1 and related resolutions 34/1 and 30/1, it had promised to pursue an “inclusive, domestically designed and executed reconciliation and accountability process”.  But two years on, it is yet to come forward with any “credible new roadmap on transitional justice towards accountability and reconciliation.”

The two transitional justice structures established by the previous government, namely, the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) and the Office on Reparations (OFR), continue to exist, “but they have struggled to secure the confidence of victims, particularly following changes in their membership,” Bachelet says.  

According to the government, the OMP has been working on the verification of 6025 complaints it had received in its first phase from 2000 to 2020 and had shared 6,025 files with the relevant authorities to obtain additional information. The OMP felt that 4,200 complaints required further documentation and had notified 3,230 families to provide further details needed to process their cases.  The government reported that in November 2021 the OMP established four panels of inquiry to conduct investigations and to enable it to issue Certificates of Absence or Certificates of Death to the families. 

“But the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights) expresses concern that the verification is aimed at reducing the case load and closing files and not establishing the truth and ensuring justice and redress to families.” 

“The High Commissioner is gravely concerned about the continuing precarious situation of the families of the disappeared – the majority of whom are represented by women. In addition to their suffering and anguish in not knowing the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones, they continue to struggle with the desperate economic and social consequences this has had on their lives,” the report says.

“The families of the disappeared have a right to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence and the High Commissioner urges the Government to acknowledge their sufferings, urgently determine the fate or whereabouts of victims, provide reparations, and bring perpetrators to justice,” the report stresses.  

In 2021, the Office for Reparations (OFR) was allocated LKR 800 million (USD 3.96 million) for the payment of processed claims; out of which LKR 400 million was utilized. “But the data available to OHCHR regarding compensation payments are not sufficiently disaggregated and it is unclear what payments correspond to human rights violations,” the report points out.

The Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) has continued to conduct peace and reconciliation workshops and activities throughout the country.  The ONUR is reportedly developing a “Strategic Roadmap for National Healing, Peace-building and Reconciliation ” through a consultation process with civil society and political parties.  But the High Commissioner stresses that reconciliation will only be achieved “when supported by comprehensive transitional justice measures.”

Let off the Hook

The report goes on to say that: “The High Commissioner is seriously concerned by the continued lack of progress and even steps backward in several emblematic human rights cases before the courts. In August 2021, the Attorney General Department decided not to proceed with charges against former Navy commander Wasantha Karannagoda in the case of the enforced disappearances of 11 individuals in 2008 and 2009. Karannagoda had filed a writ with the Court of Appeal and secured a stay order as interim relief on the basis that he was wrongly implicated.  Victims’ families challenged the decision at the Court of Appeal with hearings expected in April 2022.  While the hearings on the case are set to continue against 14 other navy personnel, Karannagoda was  appointed Governor of the North Western Province in December 2021.”

“In January 2021, the Attorney General informed the Batticaloa High Court that it would not proceed with the prosecution of five accused in another emblematic case, the murder of MP Joseph Pararajasingham at Christmas mass in December 2005.”

On 12 January 2022, the Colombo High Court delivered judgement in the case of three officers charged on 33 counts including murder and conspiracy to commit murder for the incidents that resulted in the death of twenty seven inmates in the Welikada Prison Riot on 9 November 2012.  The first accused, Inspector of Police Neomal Rangajeewa of the Narcotics Bureau was acquitted of all charges. The second accused, former Superintendent of Welikada Magazine Prison, Lamahewage Emil Ranjan, was found guilty and given a death sentence. The third accused, Indika Sampath, an officer attached to the Prisons intelligence unit, has absconded and will be tried in absentia. But “no action appears to have been taken against other security forces involved in the incident,” the report says.

Easter Sunday Bombings

On the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings which claimed 270 lives, the report said: “The victims of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings and religious leaders continue to call urgently for truth, justice, reparation for victims and a full account of the circumstances that permitted those attacks, in particular the role of the security establishment. The full results of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the attacks have not been published, but it is understood that it has recommended criminal charges against key officials.

“While hearings continue to be scheduled in several other emblematic cases, the High Commissioner is concerned that these cases continue to linger before the courts now a decade or more after the original indictments.  The Attorney General’s recent use of his discretion to withdraw these long-standing cases raises serious concerns about the independence of his office and the Government’s commitment to pursue accountability. The High Commissioner is deeply disturbed by the general lack of progress over the past years in most cases,” the report says.

Targeted Sanctions

Bachelet’s report recalls that in the absence of progress towards accountability by domestic mechanisms, Resolution 46/1 had decided “to strengthen the capacity of OHCHR to collect, consolidate, analyze and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction.”

“This accountability mandate presents an important opportunity for OHCHR, members of the Human Rights Council and the international community to support victims and pursue accountability for serious international crimes committed in Sri Lanka through complementary strategies.”

The Accountability Office started implementing these aspects of Resolution 46/1, with a start-up team undertaking preparatory work since April 2021. The Office has developed an information and evidence repository using e-discovery software and has identified a large number of individual information items already held by the UN, the report says.

The High Commissioner’s previous report had recommended that, among a range of measures, Member States explore possible targeted sanctions against credibly alleged perpetrators of grave human rights.

Other Rights Issues

The High Commissioner has objected to the government’s plan to draft a new law on “Protection from online falsehoods and manipulation.” She has disapproved the increase in the militarization of civilian government functions, and also the renewed grabbing of land in the former war-zone populated by minority communities (Tamils and Muslims) in the guise doing archeological work to unearth a Buddhist heritage or increasing forest cover.

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