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“Confidence has to be built for accountability and good governance in Sri Lanka”, civil society alerts UN Human Rights Council

Date : 2016.07.01

On Friday 24th June, jointly with Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and Franciscans International, IMADR held a side event on “Accountability and Good Governance in Sri Lanka” at the 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council. Below is the summary of the discussion.

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HRC32 Side Event_Nimalka FernandoFirst Speaker was Dr. Nimalka Fernando. From her view, the recently elected government has showed great political courage by sponsoring the resolution 30/1, by which it committed to implement a transitional justice process along with a legal reform, security sector reform and an accountability mechanism. Dr. Fernando reminded that by the resolution, and as a UN Member State, the government is bound to build sustainable peace, resolve issues related to accountability and investigate the different issues raised by the OISL report. She described the UN resolution as a historic document in Sri Lanka. Historic to those forces demanding change in the country and a major achievement for the Human Rights Council, that for the first time it has managed to “overcome the resistance of Sri Lanka and the politic maneuvers coming from the political forces supporting the former regime”. However, how has the government demonstrated its political will to implement the resolution?, she asked. Dr. Fernando pointed out that in comparison to the former regime, the present government has not resisted to the participation of the UN in order to find a sustainable peace and to effectively implement the measures. The government has as well announced an ambitious plan for transitional justice. Dr. Fernando admitted that she did not imagine Sri Lanka would be talking in the language of transitional justice, or that consultations would be carried in order to promote dialogue. Dr. Fernando reminded that all this has been accompanied by the Constitutional reform process. She also highlighted the ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. She stressed that the main obstacle of the government is to build the necessary confidence in order to address the processes in place. With this regard, Dr. Fernando posed some questions:  “Has the commitment of the government been transmitted to the victims? Have any words from political leaders given confidence to those demanding justice?” 

Despite the progress, she admitted that some issues remain unresolved such as the slow pace of release of the detainees under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), failure to provide information regarding those who surrendered during the war which the government has not been able to get the information from the army, a large portion of land remains under the military occupation as well as continuing surveillance. She concluded by highlighting the engagement of civil society in Sri Lanka in order to to seize the moment and start a dialogue with all the groups affected. She expressed the desire of having United Nations engaged in the process in order to see the implementation of the resolution.

HRC32 Side Event_Rajith Keerthi TennakoonSecond speaker was Mr. Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon. He started by making reference to the last elections that changed Sri Lanka as they allowed to rethink the mechanisms of justice and accountability. However, he observed that certain problems remain to be solved. He believed that one of these problems is the PTA, which he affirmed the need to be repealed. He stated that in line with many other promises the government made during the campaign, changes have not been put in place for the PTA. Furthermore, the government has claimed to have a draft legislation to substitute the current Act, yet there have not been any consultations with civil society and none has seen any draft. With regard to the Constitutional reform, he stressed that one essential aspect of the reform should be the judiciary, as in the past the judiciary was under the power of the government. Although, this approach has changed now, the expectations are high and reforms are not meeting the expectations. Mr. Tennakoon highlighted one issue that he believed critical for the whole reform process in the country, and that is corruption. He noted that corruption was one of the main factors that led to the regime change. He himself is involved in the anti-corruption movement and has presented more than 512 complaints, currently having cases against more than 6 different institutions. However he admitted that there is a limited success when it comes to investigation. He explained several reasons for this limited success: new institutions need to be established in order to fight against corruption; a great number of obstacles appear when investigations come to senior politicians; and the lack of involvement of civil society in the prevention of corruption. He admitted that the government is trying to strengthen the fight against corruption with more human and financial resources, however obstacles remain for sensitive cases including the investigations to former President´s family members. Mr. Tennakoon highlighted another problem in this regard that is the weak position of the Attorneys General’s department. He raise concern on the great level of influence of politicians over the department. Mr. Tennakoon concluded by pointing at the key areas of challenge in the current political situation: the role of senior police officers and military in continuous interruption of the investigation processes; the presence of the high political ranking officials suspected of corruption; and the reforms not meeting the high expectations.

HRC32 Side Event_Mario ArulthasNext speaker was Mr. Mario Arulthas who shared his impressions after his visit to the North-East earlier this year.  Despite the establishment of the new government and their promises, he pointed out that hopes were fading in the Tamil community. He reminded that the Tamil community largely voted in for President Sirisena, in order to end Rajapakse’s regime. Even though there was a great degree of skepticism among the Tamil community, there was also a cautious sense of hope by the government supporting the resolution.  However, he stressed that ongoing violations are fueling doubts on the political will of the government. He observed that the military continued to administer pre-schools, army sites and is involved in a broad range of civilian activities. Mr. Arulthas pointed to the fact that there was a huge difference between the reality of the North-East and that of the South. He highlighted serious concerns that the actions of the government are to alleviate international pressure but not to bring any real change. He stressed that everything was about the political will to bring changes including in the military and police. However, he alarmed that we must not forget the nationalist context like the role of the State in protecting Buddhism and defending the unitary character of the State. Due to that national vision, there has been a violent response to both the Tamil and international demands. “Those activists demanding power sharing, devolution or accountability are again under siege by the government” he stated. In this context, Mr Arulthas believed that the role of the current government is to convince its electors about the need of the reforms. He concluded by calling for pressure by the international community, “The narrowing window of opportunity to effect change on the island must be used and that can only be achieved by decisive international involvement.”

HRC32 Side Event_Ruki FernandoNext speaker was Mr. Ruki Fernando who focused on the issue of the disappeared. He stressed that disappearances had been a constant reality in the recent history of Sri Lanka. He mentioned the disappearances of a great number of Sinhalese in the late 80´s, and since then, that most of disappeared have been Tamils. He highlighted the use of disappearances by successive governments as a counter-terrorism tool and to suppress dissent. Mr. Fernando reminded that non-state actors such as the LTTE were also responsible for enforced disappearances. He observed that the government’s responses to the complaints regarding disappearances have been either denial, indirect justifications, intimidation of families of disappeared and those supporting them. He noted the long delays in court cases involving disappearances and the ineffectiveness of many commissions of inquiries. He welcomed the visit of the UN WGEID last year and ratification of the UN convention on enforced disappearances this year, but pointed out that it was done without recognizing article 31 on individual communications. Mr. Fernando highlighted that the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) had facilitated disappearances. And that despite promises to repeal this law, the government was still using this law, with at least 25 arrested under the PTA in last 3 months.

Mr. Fernando analyzed the recent developments in establishing the Office of Missing Persons (OMP).  Although the OMP has been approved he said there’s no clarity about next steps and time, ones. Mr. Fernando shared his belief that this is a much needed institution to address disappearances in Sri Lanka. However, he expressed a number of concerns regarding the OMP: lack public consultations despite the promise; lack of clear linkages to other proposed transitional justice mechanisms; the absence of a mechanism to ensure interim relief families of disappeared. He also stressed that present draft bill risks undermining the right to criminal justice and importance to rectify this. He also pointed out some positive features that could empower the OMP to “do a good job”. In conclusion, Mr. Fernando made proposals to ensure effectiveness of this office: more transparency and open process; mandatory clauses in relation to gender and ethnic composition; changing the name to “missing & disappeared”; and importance of making it mandatory to share maximum information with families of disappeared and to make them involved at all levels in the office, including at highest level. He also affirmed the need to criminalize disappearances before the OMP to be established

HRC32 Side Event_Accountability and Good Governance in Sri LankaThe moderator, Mr. J. David Whaley shared a series of discussions with victims of human rights violations and mass atrocities he had in Sri Lanka. He concluded the event by addressing two questions to the participants in the room. “What have each of us done since October 2015 to assure the full implementation of the resolution? Are there any practical alternatives to propose aside from the recommendations in the resolution?

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