UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions What is happening in Geneva?

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By 2017-03-05

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

Against the backdrop of a continuation of the co-sponsored resolution by Sri Lanka is to be adopted at the 34th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, the Tamil Diaspora is holding the Sri Lankan Government to 'ransom' urging the UNHRC to not grant a two-year extension as the government insists, but refer Sri Lanka to the UN General Assembly.

International human rights and legal experts are debating whether Sri Lanka should be given an extension of time to implement the co-sponsored Resolution 30/1 as the Diaspora is rejecting it outright.

The government, which co-sponsored Resolution 30/1, 'promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka' making a series of promises to war victims and the international community to address the 'legacy' of the war through a wide-ranging set of measures, is facing its toughest battle to win the two-year term extension to fulfil the implementation of the resolution.

Human Rights Chief Zeid bin Ra'ad said, the government is worryingly slow on its commitments, particularly in reference to the hybrid court the government agreed to hold to address alleged war crimes. However, President Maithripala Sirisena and Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe are adamant that it is not politically feasible to hold a hybrid court. Despite that, the government has asked for two years more in order to implement the resolution, which is 'confusing' given the mandate that Sri Lanka undertook, many note.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Mangala Samaraweera, in the hope of convincing the audience at the High Level Segment of the 34th Session of the UNHRC on 28 February 2017, pointed out that the government is moving forward in this journey, the forces of extremism and regression on both sides of the divide are creating roadblocks for narrow, short-term political gain. He added the forces are stubbornly refusing to acknowledge any of the far-reaching gains the government had made in the last two years. He argued that the government has either done too much or too little.

He also noted that Sri Lanka expects the draft legislation on the Truth-Seeking Commission to be presented to the Cabinet of Ministers within the next two months. "Our resolve to bring justice to the victims of human rights violations remains firm," he noted.

Incidence of torture
While taking the allegations of continuing incidence of torture seriously, Mangala reiterated that the government maintains a zero-tolerance policy towards torture as also demonstrated by the President's participation in an against torture event last year. Although the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) has recently indicated that there is a downward spiral of incidents, even one incident of torture is one too many. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, the Police Commission, the Ministry of Law & Order and other relevant agencies are working together to prevent and combat torture. As in many other areas, this too is an area that requires technical assistance.

The UK Government, in support of Sri Lanka said they would be 'firm' on implementing the October 2015 HRC resolution with timeline progress and also will be pressuring UNHRC on setting up a UN monitoring mission.

With Sri Lanka cosponsoring the October 2015 HRC resolution, the government had the mandate to implement it fully but having urged for a two-year extension, it has irked local Tamils, politicians, international civil society groups and Tamils overseas as well, who are lobbying in Geneva against Sri Lanka tooth and nail stating that within the next two years Sri Lanka would face a General Election and it would turn out to be zero mechanism to address Tamil issues, if given a time extension again.

The Labour Party's shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry on Thursday called on the UK Government to take a "strong stance at the UNHRC" and "to take further steps to hold Sri Lanka to account by pushing for a follow-up to Resolution " at Council.
In her letter to Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, Thornberry criticized the Government of Sri Lanka on its failure to "to establish a mechanism for investigating, prosecuting, and punishing allegations of war crimes," as well on its failure to "uphold some of the most basic standards of human rights."

She called on any new resolution regarding Sri Lanka to include "clear timescales for implementing all outstanding measures set out in Resolution 30/1," pointing in particular to the establishment of a judicial process for dealing with past abuses, repealing the PTA.

Tamil Diaspora
Tamil Diaspora organizations such as the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), the British Tamil Forum (BTF) with their renowned international human rights experts and British politicians as backup teams have urged UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein not to grant further extensions of time for Sri Lanka.

The International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) recent report on a 'rape camp' quoting three female victims who were used as sexual slaves by the Sri Lankan military over prolonged periods under custody have irked many international civil societies and members of the UNHRC. The ITJP has submitted information to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and provided several recommendations. The cases occurred in 2007, 2009-2013 and 2012-2015 and include different sites: one near Vavuniya, one near Puttalam, one in Colombo and one outside of Colombo but not in the North or East, the ITJP noted.

The UK will be backing Sri Lanka's time extension request to fulfil the cosponsored resolution, however against that decision, a hunger strike by TGTE members is being staged from last Sunday, opposite No. 10, Downing Street, London, the residence of Prime Minister Theresa May.

Sri Lanka's time extension is favoured as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the US, China, Japan, Australia have appreciated Sri Lanka's reconciliation efforts. The UK, unlike in the past when it had been critical of Sri Lanka's reconciliation efforts, is likely to support Sri Lanka after highlighting the unfulfilled commitments.

British Civil Society groups have initiated an on-line campaign to urge UK Prime Minister Theresa May to take appropriate steps at the UN Human Rights Council, to refer Sri Lanka to the UN General Assembly for International Criminal Court (ICC) referral, like North Korea.

The TGTE, which has a Monitoring Accountability Panel (MAP) with eminent international Jurists such as Geoffrey Robertson QC, have hopes that despite Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) could refer the case to the ICC for investigation arguably point out at the North Sudan which is not a State Party to the Rome Statute but since the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC in Resolution 1593 (2005) on 31 March 2005 however, the complexity involved in this approach has been not or little studied.

The TGTE also argues that usually countries that have veto power are careful in using them and even China for almost being 40 years as a member of the UN had only vetoes for nine times recent being Syria on mass destruction weapon.
"China rarely uses veto power compared to other countries and it is very unlikely that China will use veto to protect Sri Lanka as it even did not use veto to protect much closer ally Sudan from ICC," noted a Human Rights expert from Washington DC.
In the meantime, 11 Tamil National Alliance (TNA) members, four former MPs, six war victim groups, 12 civil society groups and many other Tamil Diaspora fraternities in the Europe jointly have urged the UNHRC not to grant a further extension but refer to the General Assembly.

TNA petitions UNHRC
The local members such as TNA MPs, S. Sritharan, Selvam Adaikalanathan, Dharmalingam Siddharthan, S. Yogeswaran and civil society groups and former member of Parliament Suresh Premachandran, N. Sri Kantha, Ariyanenthiran Pakiyaselvam and Chandranehru Chandraganthan in their petition to the UNHRC stated that extension of time was already given but no progress has been made on any front.

They said the Tamils' safety will be in danger as they fear that any extension of time will embolden and encourage Sri Lanka Government to commit human right abuses against Tamils without fear.
They also hinted that due to North Korea's inaction, the UNHRC referred the country to the UN General Assembly to recommend the UN Security Council to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and North Korea is in the UN Security Council agenda this time in Geneva.

However, the Tamil National Alliance stalwart politician R. Sampanthan Friday said the TNA welcomes the High Commissioner's call that the Human Rights Council sustain its close engagement with the Government of Sri Lanka and ensure monitoring of developments in the country. We call on the government to demonstrate good faith by making swift progress on the issues highlighted by the High Commissioner.

The UNHRC office on Friday said in its report that there is a slow pace of transitional justice taking place in Sri Lanka and the lack of a comprehensive strategy to address accountability for past crimes risk derailing the momentum towards lasting peace, reconciliation and stability.

The report acknowledges that there have been positive advances on human rights and constitutional reforms. "The government has advanced on constitutional reforms and showcased some positive developments on the broader human rights agenda. The fulfilment of transitional justice commitments has, however, been worryingly slow, and the structures set up and measures taken during the period under review were inadequate to ensure real progress," the report states.

The report, which was mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to assess progress made in tackling the legacy of grave violations in Sri Lanka between 2002 and 2011, commends the constructive engagement of the Government of Sri Lanka with the UN's human rights bodies, marking a discernible change in policy. It also recognizes some advances on crucial issues like land restitution and symbolic gestures towards reconciliation, as well as legal reforms and the design of an Office of Missing Persons. The laudable, inclusive work of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanism, appointed by the government, has also resulted in an incisive report, which was issued in January this year.

"The authorities at all levels, from the Head of State to military, Police, intelligence and local-level leaders, need to publicly issue unequivocal instructions to all branches of the military, intelligence and Police forces that torture, sexual violence and other human rights violations are unequivocally prohibited and will be punished," Zeid said. "And such violations need to be promptly investigated without fail. This is essential to regain and retain the trust of all Sri Lankans in the authorities, and to reassure them that the State exists to protect the rights of all its people."

The High Commissioner will present the report to the Human Rights Council on 22 March in Geneva.
While in the US, the Trump's Government is webbed with its internal affairs, the UK has taken forward the human rights issues but the two-year time and the framework of the resolution and implementation will come to light after 22 March with Zeid's decision.

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