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The UNHRC High Commissioner’s Visit to Sri Lanka: What You Need To Know

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Kris Thomas

Kris Thomas

Staff Writer

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, visited Sri Lanka last week on a four day official visit. The visit, that attracted myriad comments from across the country, witnessed Al Hussein meet with President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan and several other local politicians and civil society organisations.

This week, Roar decided to compile a list of important details regarding the Jordanian Prince’s visit to the island nation, in the hopes of keeping readers better informed on the current situation between Sri Lanka and the UN Human Rights Council, and where we stand regarding the alleged war crimes charges against us, as well as the recently adopted UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka.

The UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka was adopted last year in Geneva, with approval from Sri Lanka. Image Credit: Violaine Martin

The UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka was adopted last year in Geneva, with approval from Sri Lanka. Image Credit: Violaine Martin

1. This is the second time a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has visited Sri Lanka

Previously, former UNHRC High Commissioner Navanethem “Navi” Pillay visited the country during former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration, in order to carry out an inquiry into alleged war crimes by the then Government against civilians during the final stages of the civil war.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s predecessor was met with severe criticism by the then Government, whose supporters apportioned her own Tamil descent as the reason for her criticism of Sri Lanka, a claim she strongly denies.

Former UNHRC High Commissioner Navi Pillay’s visit to Sri Lanka in 2013 was met with much criticism. Image Credit: Sudath Silva

Former UNHRC High Commissioner Navi Pillay’s visit to Sri Lanka in 2013 was met with much criticism. Image Credit: Sudath Silva

High Commissioner Zeid, at a press conference (full speech here) summing up his visit to the country, acknowledged the previous situation by saying, “This has been a much more friendly, cooperative and encouraging visit than the one my predecessor endured in August 2013, which as you may recall was marred by vituperative attacks on her integrity, simply because she addressed a number of burning human rights issues that any High Commissioner for Human Rights would have raised at that time.”

2. Acknowledgement of media freedom, freedom of expression in citizens as well as the need for more development

High Commissioner Zeid held several discussions with the country leaders and civil society movements, as well as victims of the civil war, parents and relatives of those who had disappeared during the war, and those who have become internally displaced in the North and East sectors of the country.

Reflecting on previous negative responses to UN involvement in Sri Lanka’s post-war recovery process, he said,

“I am aware that some of the same people have given me a similar welcome — I’ve seen the posters — but I am pleased that in the new environment in Sri Lanka, all voices, including the moderate voices of civil society, can at last be heard, even if sometimes the voices of hatred and bigotry are still shouting the loudest, and as a result are perhaps being listened to more than they deserve. Sri Lanka has come a long way in the past year, as you, the media, are only too aware — given the much greater freedom you now have to write what you wish to write, and report what you feel you should report. The element of fear has considerably diminished, at least in Colombo and the South. In the North and the East, it has mutated but, sadly, still exists.”

He went on to note that, “The ‘white van’ abductions that operated outside all norms of law and order, and — as intended — instilled fear in the hearts of journalists, human rights defenders and others who dared criticise the Government or State security institutions, are now very seldom reported. The number of torture complaints has been reduced but new cases continue to emerge — as two recent reports, detailing some disturbing alleged cases that occurred in 2015, have shown — and police all too often continue to resort to violence and excessive force.”

3. Comments on inter-communal relations in the country

High Commissioner Zeid Al Hussein acknowledged gestures made towards better inter-communal relations in Sri Lanka. Image Credit: UN/Jean-Marc Ferré

High Commissioner Zeid Al Hussein acknowledged gestures made towards better inter-communal relations in Sri Lanka. Image Credit: UN/Jean-Marc Ferré

During the press conference, High Commissioner Zeid acknowledged the singing of the Tamil translation of the Sri Lankan National Anthem during the recent Independence Day celebrations. Referring to this as well as other recent initiatives (he had clearly done his homework), he said that Sri Lanka is taking baby steps towards communal harmony, which needs to be strengthened if it is to succeed in the future.

“Several recent highly symbolic steps have been taken that have had a positive impact on inter-communal relations, including the decision taken to sing the national anthem in both Sinhala and Tamil on Independence Day, for the first time since the early 1950s. The following day, in a reciprocal gesture, the Chief Minister of the Northern Province paid a respectful visit to a Buddhist temple in Jaffna. And in January, the President pardoned the convicted LTTE prisoner who once plotted to assassinate him,” he said.

4. Comments on social issues

The UN High Commissioner also highlighted the need to recognise and provide for the rights of individuals with disabilities, different sexual orientations, and maintain a broader perspective on women’s rights. He said,

“Distracted by this conflict, Sri Lanka has also failed to address critical issues facing women, people with disabilities, people with different sexual orientations, and other groups suffering discrimination such as the Plantation Tamils in Central Sri Lanka. I hope that these and other neglected or discriminated-against groups and minorities will now receive the attention they deserve, not least in the constitutional reform process.”

5. Comments on the post conflict resolution

Zeid Al Hussein also took a strong stand on the post conflict resolution process that was recommended and approved by his office last year. He highlighted the utmost necessity for truth-telling, accountability, reparations and institutional reforms that Sri Lanka currently requires in order to be a “success story”.

He also noted that the Government should take speedy steps to remove military forces from the North and East in order to fasten the reconciliation process ‒ an argument that has been brought forward several times by numerous civil organisations.

“… the military needs to accelerate the return of land it has seized and is still holding to its rightful owners. While some land has been returned in the Jaffna and Trincomalee areas, there are still large tracts which can and should be swiftly given back. Once the land has been given back, the remaining communities of displaced people can — if given the necessary assistance — return home, and a lingering sore will have been cured once and for all. In parallel, the size of the military force in the North and the East can be reduced to a level that is less intrusive and intimidating, as a first step in security sector reform.”

The UNHRC will be keeping a tab on Sri Lanka’s progress with regard to post-war reconciliation. Image Credit: newsfirst.lk

The UNHRC will be keeping a tab on Sri Lanka’s progress with regard to post-war reconciliation. Image Credit: newsfirst.lk

High Commissioner Zeid, speaking with regards to the resolution adopted by his office, co-sponsored by the Sri Lankan Government, highlighted how it had laid out an “eminently sensible pathway for the country to follow” and added that his office will be reporting back to the Council on its progress ‒ or lack of it ‒ next June, and again in March 2017.  

He said,

“There are many myths and misconceptions about the resolution, and what it means for Sri Lanka. It is not a gratuitous attempt to interfere with or undermine the country’s sovereignty or independence. It is not some quasi-colonial act by some nebulous foreign power. The acceptance of the resolution was a moment of strength, not weakness, by Sri Lanka. It was the country’s commitment to both itself and to the world to confront the past honestly and, by doing that, take out comprehensive insurance against any future devastating outbreak of inter communal tensions and conflict.”

6. International Court: a suggestion, not an order

In the 2015 resolution, it was suggested that a hybrid court system with international judges, prosecutors and investigators be implemented in the post conflict reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. However, the Sri Lankan Government which had opposed to it, maintains that a hybrid court system will not be implemented in the country as per the suggestions of the UN High Commission for Human Rights.

High Commissioner Zeid addressed this matter by acknowledging that Sri Lanka does in fact have “many excellent judges, lawyers, and law enforcement officials.”

However, he also noted that the legal system the country has depended on has become highly politicised, unbalanced, and unreliable, and the country’s history over the past few decades is littered with judicial failures.

“Virtually every week provides a new story of a failed investigation, a mob storming a court-room, or another example of a crime going unpunished. Sexual violence and harassment against women and girls is particularly poorly handled by the relevant State institutions — especially when the alleged perpetrators are members of the military or security services — and, as a result it remains all too widespread,” he said.

According to Al Hussein, this situation the deterioration of Sri Lanka’s legal system and people losing faith in it has been the main reason as to why the UN Human Rights Council has suggested the implementation of an international hybrid court in Sri Lanka.

“It is for these reasons that the report and the Human Rights Council resolution suggest international participation in the accountability mechanisms set up to deal with international crimes and gross human rights violations committed by individuals on both sides. This is a practical proposal to solve the very real and practical problems I mentioned earlier. But it is only one aspect — albeit a very important one — of the broad range of measures outlined in the 2015 UN report and resolution, and the extent to which it has been allowed to dominate the debate in Sri Lanka in recent days is unfortunate. Extreme nationalistic tendencies lay at the heart of Sri Lanka’s conflict, and they should not be allowed to undermine the country’s long term chances of recovery once again,” he said.

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