“Civil Society Responses to the OHCHR report on Sri Lanka”, calling the participation of the international community in transitional justice processes (28 September)
Date : 2015.10.02
On Monday 28th of September, during the 30th session of the UN Human Rights Council, the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR), jointly with Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and Minority Rights Group International, hosted a side event entitled: “Civil Society Responses to the OHCHR report on Sri Lanka”. This unique opportunity took the form of open panel discussion with Sri Lankan civil society representatives from different ethnic and religious communities. They shared their responses to the OHCHR report and discussed the steps that need to be taken in order to reach truth, justice, accountability and reconciliation in the country. The large audience consisted of people from international and national NGOs, Sri Lankan civil society, Tamil Diaspora, and State representatives.
Mr. David Whaley, the moderator of this side event, opened the panel discussion by reminding the audience that the Human Rights Council should be a forum for victims to express themselves and give the opportunity for international actors to take action in their behalf.
The first speaker who took the floor was Mr. Sudarshana Gunawardana, a human rights defender working in Colombo for the group “Rights Now Collective for Democracy”. He started his presentation by saying that, since the January 2015 election, space has opened up in Sri Lanka. He is therefore optimistic but cautious. He then stressed the importance to recall that the OHCHR report is the result of long and collective efforts. All the communities composing the Sri Lankan society had to work together and gather their force to uproot the previous government and demand genuine political will for truth and justice. He finally declared that independence of media is still an issue in the country. He explained that free and independent media has a critical role in upholding high standards of governance and should be promoted by the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL).
The second speaker, Ms. Shreen Saroor, is a Muslim representative and one of the founders of “Mannar Women’s Development Federation” and “Mannar Women for Human Rights and Democracy in Sri Lanka”. She focused her presentation on sexual violence. She welcomed the fact that the phenomenon of sexual violence in Sri Lanka has finally been described in the OHCHR report as systematic and structural. She noted that acts of sexual violence and torture by security forces continue to be reported in the militarized part of the country. She urged the Government to immediately take measures to put an end to these abuses. She then expressed her real deep concern with regards to the Sri Lankan peacekeeper’s operations. She denounced horrific sexual violence they committed on Tamil women during the civil war. According to her, Sri Lankan peacekeepers should not be deployed anywhere else before prosecution takes place and justice is made for the hundreds of women who suffered appalling violation of their rights. She declared that without real reforms and adequate training, Sri Lankan peacekeepers would continue to abuse their power with impunity where they will be deployed: “We need to protect women around the world”. She finished her presentation by calling upon the High Commissioner’s Office to follow closely the implementation of the report’s recommendations and to request from the Sri Lankan government regular follow ups. According to her, a heavy involvement of the international community is essential in order to genuinely improve the human rights situation in her country.
Mr. Niran Anketell, a Tamil lawyer based in Colombo, started his presentation by welcoming the consensus resolution which includes key set of civil society’s demands such as: the international involvement in the transitional justice process and the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. He admitted that the resolution could have been better, nevertheless he asked to keep in mind that, for the first time, the GoSL co-sponsored the resolution: compromises were therefore vital for the negotiation to take place.
He then discussed the Sri Lankan judicial and legal system. According to him, there are fundamental flaws in the actual system and a hybrid mechanism is primordial to address human rights violations in Sri Lanka. He gave the example of the Attorney General department, which is strongly politicized and corrupted, and failed in the past to investigate efficiently alleged human rights abuses. He declared that interferences by political actors in all stages of investigation are very common. The participation of the international community in a mechanism for truth and justice is necessary in order to protect future investigation from politicisation. He is aware that Sri Lankans do not unanimously support the establishment of a hybrid mechanism, however he declared that people stating that the Sri Lankan constitution does not allow such mechanism are only using excuses and masks for other political concerns. The Government has now to sell the idea of a hybrid court and promote it in the country: “It is only a political matter”.
He finished his presentation by stating that the new Government should review as soon as possible the Witness Protection Act to meet international standards.
Ms. Nimalka Fernando, IMADR’s president and human rights defender in Sri Lanka, was the last speaker to take the floor during this panel discussion. She started by declaring that, although the implementation of the OHCHR report’s recommendations is going to be long, she is not pessimistic. She witnessed the Government’s change of attitude and its openness to acknowledge the terrible human rights abuses perpetuated in Sri Lanka. Politically, this new position represents a huge step and the GoSL distances itself from the previous governments. She declared that after 6 long years of struggle, lobbying and hard work from the Sri Lankan civil society, the report is out and that “time for healing has come”.
She reminded the audience that the terrible human rights violations occurred during the war, were not only the result of Sri Lankan government’s failure but the failure of international community as well. Therefore, the UN system has a responsibility in supporting the GoSL to address these human rights abuses.
Finally, she put a strong emphasis on the urgent need to translate the OHCHR report in Tamil and Sinhalese. The population concerned need to access its content and the GoSL has to start the discussion and consultation with the affected communities as soon as possible.
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In the second part of this side event, the moderator opened the floor to the audience for comments. Many points were raised.
Some people expressed their fear and their mistrust in the GoSL. They declared that the GoSL made a lot of promises in the past and never implemented them. “How can we trust them to translate words into actions this time?”. Moreover, some individuals see in the GoSL’s behaviour a bad sign for the future. For them, the GoSL political position concerning the need of investigation in order to “clean the honour of the Sri Lanka soldiers” is deeply concerning and counterproductive.
An individual raised the point of the need to be extremely careful with the translation of the report into Tamil and Sinhalese. He heard rumour amongst Sri Lankans, that the OHCHR report is not asking for a hybrid mechanism and that the international community will only have a role of observer in the transitional processes. Manipulation of words’ meaning can be used to deform the OHCHR report’s recommendations and this question should be taken really seriously.
Someone noticed a grave omission in the OHCHR report: there are only two short paragraphs concerning the history of Sri Lanka and how past politics led to the civil war. “It is essential to think about how we get here” in order to guarantee non-recurrence of such human rights abuses in the future.
Finally, some people wanted to express that member of the Tamil Diaspora are victims of the civil war too. They have been forced to leave their country and are uprooted. One of them declared: “I am crying too. My land and my home is there.”
Other individuals were more optimistic and they welcomed the OHCHR report and the new GoSL position. They made further suggestions to strengthen the civilian trust and confidence such as: to request the GoSL to report to the Human Rights Council on the transitional processes more regularly and to open an OHCHR office in the north/east of the country. Numerous participants admitted that the resolution could have gone further, but stressed that the OHCHR report is a good start and gives tools to the civil society to continue the fight for truth, justice and reconciliation.
The moderator closed the panel discussion by thanking the courageous victims for coming forward to report their traumatic experience; the UN officials for resigning from their position to denounce the horror of the war; and the Tamil Diaspora and human rights defenders for finding new ways to interact with the international community in order to keep Sri Lanka’s human rights crisis on the international agenda. He declared that the release of OHCHR report is the result of their courage and persistence.
He briefly summarized the next steps that have to be taken promptly:
- Share to the Sri Lanka communities a full and accurate translation of the OHCHR report.
- Strengthen the OHCHR capacity in Geneva, Colombo and on the ground in order to participate in the implementation and follow up of the OHCHR report’s recommendations.
- Make sure that the international community and civil society follow up the measures taken by the GoSL to implement the OHCHR report’s recommendations.
Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (hereafter, Sri Lanka) concluded its 26 years-long internal war with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009. During the internal war, up to 40,000 civilians were reportedly killed in the war zones and 290,000 persons were internally displaced. Furthermore, both the State military and LTTE are accused for a series of serious violations of the international humanitarian and human rights law. However, domestic accountability processes established under the former-President Mahinda Rajapaksa regime have failed to lead to prosecutions for grave human rights violations, including the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).
In March 2014, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka (A/HRC/25/L.1/Rev.1)”, which requested the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to investigate into alleged serious violations of human rights and related crimes committed by the Government and the LTTE during the period covered by the LLRC. This is the first credible investigation into what happened in the final stage of the internal war. This OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) report was released in September 2015 at the 30th session of the Human Rights Council.
Peacebuilding and Human Rights Advocacy
With its partners, the IMADR Asia Committee has facilitated awareness raising campaigns and advocacy to promote peace, human rights and non-discrimination. Victim-centered approaches are applied for those campaigns and advocacy. Since before the conclusion of the internal war, the Committee has conducted fact-finding missions to document human rights violations, especially in the Eastern and Northern provinces. Through these activities, the Committee helped to form women’s groups in local villages which have empowered girls and women to participate in decision-making processes and promote ethnic and religious harmony.
International Advocacy and the UN Human Rights Mechanisms
To bring voices of victims of human rights violations from Sri Lanka, IMADR has participated in the UN human rights mechanisms, with particular focus on the Human Rights Council . It has addressed a wide range of issues including accountability, enforced disappearance, torture, IDPs, rule of law, arbitrary detention, civil society space, women’s human rights, minority rights, freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and assembly. IMADR has tirelessly advocated for the resolutions on Sri Lanka adopted by the Human Rights Council.
- Human Rights Council resolutions on Sri Lanka
At times of review of Sri Lanka, IMADR has engaged with the UN treaty bodies such as the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), Human Rights Committee and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Asia Committee produced the guidebook on ICERD/CERD in Shinhalese and Tamil and provided training for local civil society actors and human rights defenders.
Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)
With a focus on girls and women, the Asia Committee has provided assistance to IDPs and people affected by the internal war. More than 5 years after the conclusion of the internal war, a great number of IDPs are still waiting to return home while many of them continue to suffer poverty. UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons conducted an official visit to Sri Lanka in 2013 and documented the situation of IDPs. The Asia Committee has carried out both advocacy and assistance work which include:
- Infrastructure reconstruction (nursery, toilet and buildings) in Polonnaruwa and Dambulla;
- Distribution of educational and livelihood materials in Vavuniya, Kilinochi and Mankulam; and
- Rehabilitation of former-LTTE female soldiers in Vavuniya with a partner organisation.
Discrimination based on Work and Descent
With partnership of Human Development Organisation (HDO) , the Asia Committee has cooperated for advocacy and research to improve the living conditions of tea plantation workers whose ancestors were mostly Dalits brought from South India during the British colonial time. Today, many plantation workers continue to work as day laborers in adverse conditions and suffer poverty.
IMADR Asia Committee was set up in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1989. Since the establishment, the Committee and its partners have addressed multiple forms of discrimination in Sri Lanka through national and international advocacy, arising out of its engagement with communities to combat racism. Leadership of the Asia Committee has been involved in inter-ethnic and inter-religious activities for over 25 years at the community level, as well as in the promotion of reconciliation among all communities.