Recommendations in Previous Resolutions Still Relevant – Hanaa Singer-Hamdy

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By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

As the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Session is set to start next week in Geneva, Ceylon Today spoke to UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka and Designated Official of the UN Secretary-General in Sri Lanka, Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, to hear from her on Sri Lanka’s current position on the human rights records and the importance of addressing the issues related to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). “The recent reports of arrests, questioning or intimidation of a number of vocal advocates for human rights has been concerning. It is important to remember that jailing critics and suppressing peaceful dissent does not make societies safe,” she added.

Excerpts of the interview: 

The Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) renounced the commitment made by the former administration, which co-sponsored and accepted UNHRC Resolution 30/1 in 2015. Is this, however, active with the UNHRC or the rejection has been acknowledged. What is the policy here? 

A: In March 2021 at the 46th Sessions of Human Rights Council a new Resolution 46/1 was adopted by Member States calling on the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor more carefully the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and provide period reports to the Council. It also mandated the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights to collect, consolidate and preserve evidence for future prosecutions and make recommendations to the international community on steps they can take to deliver on justice and accountability in Sri Lanka. Therefore, this resolution updates the Resolution 40/1 of 21 March 2019, which was in effect a continuation of the Resolution 30/1 from 2015. But many of the issues and recommendations in the previous resolutions remain extremely relevant, notwithstanding the change in the Government’s position.

The UN and the EU have contributed EUR 19 million to the Justice Reform (JURE) Programme. Why was Sri Lanka given this money? What is your opinion of Sri Lanka’s legal system? 

A: Ensuring equal access to justice for all and protecting everyone’s fundamental freedoms is an integral part of the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). It is also important for dealing with the past and ensuring access to justice and redress by victims from all communities. It also looks at improving transparency and accountability in the sector as well as enhancing quality and efficient services delivery. 

The programme will also support justice sector reform in line with international standards, norms and best practices and build on the ambitious agenda of the Ministry of Justice. Close attention will be paid in particular to foster access to justice for women, Persons with disabilities and children, to support alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to deal with commercial matters and to maximise the potential of digital transformation to promote innovation and facilitate expeditious access to justice.  

In relation to children, the programme will enable age-appropriate justice, focused on the best interests of every child in line with the principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The suggested reforms will look at preventing family separation and ensure support to families and divert children away from the justice system and custodial sentences and instead focus on separate non-judicial solutions for children.

Our programme work on justice sector reform continues to be underpinned by a human rights-based approach to ensure that the applicable human rights law norms and standards are applied across every area of our work.

In the recent past there have been arrests and intimidation of journalists and attorneys. What is the UN’s stance on these incidents? 

A: The recent reports of arrests, questioning or intimidation of a number of vocal advocates for human rights has been concerning. It is important to remember that jailing critics and suppressing peaceful dissent does not make societies safer: it drives legitimate and constructive opinion underground and deepens grievances. The freedom to speak out, to criticise policies and demand accountability accelerates innovation and economic progress. 

The Government recently met NGOs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They have brought up concerns about the PTA. Prof. G.L. Peiris, Minister of Foreign Affairs, has stated that they want the PTA to be “balanced,” as there is a part of the society that opposes repealing the PTA, citing national security reasons, while others argue that adjustments should be made. The proposed modifications, according to Human Rights Watch, keep the law’s most often abused clauses intact and, if implemented, will do little to bring the PTA into compliance with Sri Lanka’s international human rights commitments. What is the UN’s assessment of the PTA? 

A: Sadly, terrorism is a serious and legitimate security concern for communities and governments around the world, and Sri Lanka has been deeply scarred by it over many decades. The PTA was originally enacted on a temporary basis, however, much has changed from the time when it was initially enacted. Successive governments have pledged to review and reform the PTA for many years. The present government has committed to do this and is currently considering a range of changes which is an important, initial step. We believe that responses to terrorism should be grounded in human rights and the rule of law because, ultimately, it is the most effective approach. If you look anywhere in the world, the lesson learned is that crackdowns, repression and militarised responses– are mostly counter-productive.

Prevention of terrorism legislation that is in line with international standards would also prevent arrests or detention of people for peacefully expressing their right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association. It is also extremely important that they operate transparently. 

When governments look at ways to counter terrorism, it is crucial to recognise that effectively preventing terrorism requires addressing the circumstance in which it flourishes. Oftentimes terrorism is a response to deprivation and inequality, discrimination, marginalisation, injustice that could be fuelled by persistent failure to respect human rights. 

The Government too has acknowledged the concerns over the PTA and is now taking some preliminary steps to modify this legislation, while the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has recently called for repealing the PTA. The High Commissioner of the UNHRC will be very important in this regard. The current vibrant debate between various groups regarding current reforms to the PTA is productive and the more voices that are heard will lead to better outcomes for Sri Lanka.

In 2021, UNHRC, Ontario Parliament, the US Congress and Brussels (EU Parliament) issued international resolutions against Sri Lanka. What could be expected for Sri Lanka at the upcoming Geneva session?

A: At the upcoming 49th Session of the Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner for Human Rights will present her written update on Sri Lanka as mandated by Resolution 46/1 of 2021. There will also be an interactive dialogue on the update discussions on progress in reconciliation and accountability. Resolution 46/1 mandated OHCHR to present a written update in this Council session and another report for the September session later this year.

The resolution passed by the UNHRC in March last year (2021) was backed by 22 member countries and they called on Sri Lanka to: “fulfil its commitments on the devolution of political authority and the full enjoyment of human rights by all members of its population and encouraging the Government to respect local governance, including through the holding of elections for provincial councils, and to ensure that all provincial councils, including the Northern and Eastern Provincial Councils, are able to operate effectively, in accordance with the 13A to the Constitution of Sri Lanka.” As a UN Envoy, is Sri Lanka on the right path?

A: Sri Lanka has important issues to address – for certain. However, between the 1970s and 2009 Sri Lanka was plagued by successive waves of violence across much of the country. It is now over a decade since the end of the war and sustaining peace is an achievement that all Sri Lankans, regardless of their religion or ethnicity, should be proud. 

Despite the protests of mothers of missing relatives, one of the most severe concerns is that the Government has yet to address war responsibility. The deceased cannot be brought back, according to the Minister of Justice, although the families of the victims are unsure of the fate of their loved ones. Tamils also oppose a local process, despite the Government’s assertion that a local mechanism would be adequate. However, this has not yet been implemented. What solution can the UNHRC come up with to bring this to a close?

A: I believe it is important to remember that for the victims, families and communities, this situation has still not been brought fully to a close. I have spoken to many of them over the past three years and their pain is still very much alive. They go through slow mental anguish and alternate between being hopeful that maybe their loved one is still alive and then at other times they are mourning the loss of someone with no closure. 

At the same time these protesters and families also feel threatened that searching for the truth may expose them to danger.

For families in both the North and the South and female-headed households especially, their distress is compounded by the economic burden placed on them as the main breadwinner of their family. 

Therefore, it is important that the Government adopts a transparent system of addressing the concerns of the families of the victims. Material and economic support is important, but it is not enough. It is critically important for the future social cohesion that greater efforts are made to provide families with the truth and the opportunity to pursue justice. 

The war remembrance every year has been disturbed by surveillance and intimidation by government forces in the Northern Province. Was this matter raised by the UN office in Colombo? 

A: We have repetitively raised the issue that memorialisation is an important part of the grieving and reconciliation process for those who lost loved ones in the conflict and if all sides are allowed to have their own process of memorialisation, then it can lead to reconciliation. Intimidation and surveillance of those mourning their loved ones will only lead to deeper grievances. 

Peaceful assembly and association is a human right and we have always raised it as an important right contributing towards reconciliation, both privately with the Government and in public forums. I read that the Justice Nawaz Commission has recommended greater freedom for commemorative activities and I hope the Government will relax its policies in this regard.

Some within the Government have rejected multinational NGOs’ participation in Sri Lanka, allowing only those NGOs that are required for community development. What is the UN’s response to this development? 

A: NGOs are a vital part of civil society, and many are engaged in contributing to the promotion, protection and advancement of human rights. Whether local or international a dynamic, diverse, transparent, and independent civil society that is able to operate freely ensures accountability and transparency of the Government. 

NGOs are integral to the work of the UN and we work very closely with them on a number of issues, part of our role is to ensure that they are able to operate in a safe and conducive environment. Therefore, it is our hope that as the Government continues and increases its dialogue with NGOs and find ways to increase space for NGOs to function effectively in Sri Lanka. There certainly should be no reprisals or penalties for NGO representatives advocating with the United Nations or other bodies.

GoSL not only faces the UNHRC challenges but also the EU Parliament in extending the permit of the existing GPS plus for trade. Do you see pressure on Sri Lanka is mounting every year?

A: The international community and the UN are here to work with the Government and people of Sri Lanka for current and future generations. We work in partnership with all stakeholders, government, civil society, the private sector, the communities and all involved. There are important steps Sri Lanka needs to take to create a peaceful cohesive society – regardless of pressure from the outside. 

Delivering on commitments to international human rights mechanisms and instruments, dealing with the past and reconciliation, aligning legislation to international human rights standards and improving the relationship of the State with minority groups can all contribute immensely to ensure that every Sri Lankan can reach their full potential. These are not demands imposed from outside – they are the aspirations of Sri Lankan people themselves.

It has been seven years since the UN Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for SDGs to promote global peace and prosperity. Where is Sri Lanka in this journey?

A: According to the 2021 Sustainable Development Report, Sri Lanka has an SDG Index of 68.1, which means it is ranked 87th out of 165 countries. The Report suggests that achieving the 2030 Agenda in Sri Lanka remains a work in progress, with uneven progress across the SDGs. 

Sri Lanka is already achieving some SDG targets in relation to poverty reduction (SDG 1), reductions in maternal, neonatal and infant mortality (SDG 3), and in literacy, enrolment and completion rates for primary and secondary education (SDG 4). However, assessments show much slower progress in areas such as malnutrition – particularly incidences of stunting and wasting among children under five years (SDG 2), female labour force participation (SDG 5) and in reducing gender inequalities (SDG 10). Women’s labour force participation and political participation remain challenging areas where we are beginning to see a decreasing trend in progress over the years. This is an area that should receive particular focus, as the country has the potential to add USD 20 billion to its GDP if gender parity is addressed, and the potential to increase economic growth trajectory by about 14 per cent.

An important priority area is SDG 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions which underpins and creates the enabling environment for all the other goals. There are significant gaps in this area, and we hope to work with the Government to bolster performance on this important and cross cutting development goal. Sri Lanka emerged from a decades long conflict just over a decade ago, but it is important to preserve those gains. There remain important post conflict legacy issues that if not properly addressed could undermine the country’s peace and development.

Despite other hurdles such as the financial crisis and the pandemic, Sri Lanka has been promoting its organic agricultural and renewable energy missions. What are your thoughts on the country’s attitude to organic foods and renewable energy? 

A: Broadly speaking it is important to remember the requirements for both energy and food security are heavily affected by climate change. Sri Lanka is especially vulnerable to climate change, and this has serious ramifications for the provision of energy and food for the population. There are also strong social economic and political risks associated with poor energy and food supply. This is an area that the UN globally is increasingly concerned about, and the new global UN Climate Security Mechanism is leading the way in the Organisation’s response. As the Secretary General has stated clearly “we need to make peace with nature” and the challenge of climate change is an existential one for the world. 

We know that upscaling of organic farming in the country has been discussed for many years and by successive governments, and the National Agriculture Policy 2021 planned to increase organic fertiliser use in Sri Lanka from one per cent to 30 per cent within three years. Transition from the current conventional (chemical-based farming) to organic farming will need a clear strategic roadmap and a transition plan that includes support to farmers and safeguards to ensure food security in the short term.

On renewable energy, the Government has set ambitious targets for the country’s overall energy mix to receive 70 per cent from renewable energy sources by 2030 and to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. At present, renewable energy only contributes to 44.6 per cent of the overall energy mix, mainly from wind, solar, biomass and hydro energy sources. In order to incentivise the transition away from fossil fuel in the power sector, we need to see more investment in power storage and smart grids which will help manage the inherent variability of most renewable energy sources and deliver more stable supply and pricing of renewable energy. This means looking beyond wind and solar energy sources and towards other exotic energy sources such as wave and ocean thermal energy, and sustainable harvested biomass as potential energy sources for the future.