UNHRC, EU & U.S. Checkmates Sri Lanka on HR Records
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
The Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL), has been sending mix-signals to the international community on human rights (HR) issues that they were keen to see a breakthrough from but it seems the rights record will keep adding in the backdrop while Sri Lanka battles COVID and financial bankruptcy.
Spending almost a year to contain the coronavirus spread, the international community is back in action starting its activities with a virtual United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Session in March 2021 where they adopted a new mandate on Sri Lanka, stating that the GoSL has to work on commitments it made previously. It’s all coming back and the noose is tightening around Sri Lanka to implement laws that will ensure fair governance. The West said that if done so, the country can look forward to more benefits.
The G7 Summit declared their support for lower and middle-income countries in response to similar actions the Chinese have been taking. President Biden told that the Pfizer vaccine will be sent to Sri Lanka among more conditional offers by the West. Sri Lanka is not in a position to lose benefits and donors from the Western world and cannot rely fully on one or two countries like China for that matter who have kept the geopolitical periphery engaging Sri Lanka well under them.
China is one of the factors pushing the West to demand Sri Lanka comply with their conditions while its citizens seek support from external factors on human rights issues. For instance, until now, no single State authority explained the scientific reasoning behind cremating COVID-19 victims. The Government explanation was that since even the majority Sinhalese could not perform their last rites they too, are suffering like all other communities.
A strong statement by HR Commissioner Michele Bachelet on rights issues irked GoSL, but Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena responded quickly by citing that most of the HR violations she claimed were unwarranted and unsubstantiated. This is the usual response by successive Governments to those adopting resolutions against Sri Lanka.
But, Bachelet was not convinced. On the 47th session of the HR Council on 22 June, she called the GoSL to conduct a thorough, prompt and independent investigation into the arbitrary administrative detention of up to two years without trial for the purposes of de-radicalisation. She noted that the ongoing series of deaths of those in Police custody and in Police encounters with alleged criminal gangs need a thorough, prompt and independent investigation.
She said that the targeting of Muslims and harassment of Tamils, the latter referring to interrupting memorial events for those who died at the end of the war, were serious concerns. The HR Chief also talked about recent counter-terrorism regulations which include the listing and/or prohibition of more than 300 Tamil and Muslim groups and individuals for allegedly supporting terrorism.
Bachelet noted that she will update the progress taken by the Sri Lankan Government at the upcoming September Session. There was no change in her words. Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella during an interview with the writer in February said the cremation of Muslim COVID-19 victims has put the Government to test and would certainly reflect at the UNHRC, which did as predicted.
It seems as if legislators and policymakers are unconcerned about the backlash regarding human rights violations, which are not just tarnishing Sri Lanka’s image, but has led the masses to suffer the cost of their ‘radical’ thinking. The incident where a group of Muslims were made to kneel because they violated lockdown rules in Eravur last week did not get any reaction from the authorities. Social Media shared photos of busy Colombo traffic juxtaposed with pictures from the Eravur incident.
In many States in India, such cruel punishments on civilians meted out by Traffic Police were shown on television and was promptly criticised. The Police Spokesperson in Colombo said that the Security Personnel involved have been suspended and that the offence came under the Convention Against Torture Act. In total contrast, a Buddhist Monk who sat on a busy Dambulla Road and accused the President in degrading terms was not arrested or punished.
Instead he was called over by the Dambulla Mayor who took the Monk into his vehicle to resolve the issue. Similarly, no action was taken against a Monk who took to social media to thrash the leadership in foul language. However, a poet who wrote on the Easter Sunday attacks was taken into custody.
Likewise several Tamil and Muslim youths have been arrested for posting photos of the dead LTTE leader Prabhakaran. According to TNA MP Shanakiyan R. Rasamanikkam, over 20 were arrested and taken under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) on 18 May in Batticaloa. But these youths were not released on Poson Poya. For holding a protest march called Pottuvil to Polikandi (P2P) some politicians were booked under the law and summoned to Courts. This issue was even discussed in the South African Parliament.
Such stories are making headlines in the international arena or picked up on social media. Meanwhile, the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation Major General Dharshana Hettiarrachchi, tasked with re-educating radicalised youth detained in connection with the Easter Sunday attacks, explained that the legal process is underway and very soon those who need to be de-radicalised will be handed over to him. He said he does not know the number of youth detained over the terror attacks and mentioned that group of independent Muslim scholars will be assisting in the rehabilitating and de-radicalising process.
With calls from the international community for due process, Minister of Sports Namal Rajapaksa spoke out in Parliament last week for justice for Tamil detainees with pending legal cases, as well as those who have exceeded their sentences and against whom an indictment has never been filed. Some cases are pending for over 20 years, he said. The core group on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC Tuesday (22), called for the safety of former CID Director, SSP Shani Abeysekara, expressing concerns about the Government’s continued use of PTA.
Releasing the prisoners
On Thursday (24), 16 former LTTE cadres convicted under the PTA were released by the Government with the move certain to please the international community. These men have spent over 13 years behind bars and evidently have served their full prison terms. Former MP Duminda Silva, who was convicted of murder, was also released on a Special Presidential Pardon on Thursday. He was convicted following efforts by an entire Police team, legal professionals and Judges, all funded by the taxpayers’ money.
According to the Media Spokesperson of the Ministry of Prisons Management and Prisoners Rehabilitation Affairs and the Department of Prisons Chandana Ekanayake, currently, there are 67 former LTTE cadres under remand custody and another 37 combatants convicted of crimes. He also revealed there are another 262 males and 10 females detained under PTA who are not ex-combatants. While these are being discussed, dialogue is also needed on the resolution adopted by the EU Parliament that demands to consider a temporary withdraw of the GSP+ status given to Sri Lanka due to rights concerns.
The EU Resolution also called Sri Lanka to work with the UNHRC mandate and comply with the EU Resolution to continue enjoying GSP+ benefits that were initially expected to conclude in 2023, but could continue up to 2025 provided that we tick the yardstick the EU calls for. The majority of Sri Lankan exports go to Europe; accounting for 25.9 per cent of Sri Lanka’s total exports valuing around USD 2 billion. Main exports from Sri Lanka include textiles (59 per cent), rubber (10 per cent), coffee and tea (five per cent), machinery and equipment (four per cent), gems, pearls, precious metal (four per cent). The majority of these are labour-intensive industries and any impact from GSP+ directly affects Sri Lanka’s job market. The textile industry alone accounts for around 600,000 jobs which is seven per cent of the country’s total workforce. Sri Lanka lost GSP+ benefits in 2021 and is currently benefiting from the facility which was restored in 2017.
Following the LTTE’s defeat in 2009, the Tamil Diaspora and NGOs have been successful in highlighting the problems facing Sri Lanka’s minorities and other political developments to their host countries such as Canada, the U.S. and in Europe and they are undisputedly calling shots on the EU, the UK-led group, the UNHRC and the U.S. The Tamil Diaspora claims they have disrupted Sri Lanka’s access to capital markets by successfully advocating for a credit rating downgrade and dampening tourism by very high profile ‘red-listing’ by the UK.
Having faced injustices, minorities overseas have voiced against HR issues to the EU community to disrupt Sri Lanka’s USD 2.6 billion revenue through GSP+ trade concession. The possibility of Sri Lanka losing GSP+ heightens uncertainty among foreign investors.
Also local investors will look to shift capital away from home to countries where they believe the EU concession is secure; this is how Bangladesh became the alternative place for investment. Dismissing allegations and lack of enthusiasm shown on addressing a long-awaited UNHRC mandate will only discourage foreign direct investment and push local entrepreneurs to panic-move their production outside Sri Lanka resulting in a deterministic degradation of the economy.
This will sink GoSL further when it is financially bankrupt, owing to colossal amount of external debts. The response by GoSL to the international community has many factors such as the difficulty in getting public mandate to execute certain vital recommendations of the UNHRC. But the international community reiterates if vital issues are not addressed through transitional justice commitments for post-war reconciliation that would bring about a confidence-building mechanism, it would, in fact, be detrimental to Sri Lanka’s progress. The Foreign Minister’s responses do not show a clear foreign policy, instead it flares mix-signals.
He rubbishes and regrets the resolutions adopted by countries and at the same time praises the West for their longstanding friendship, contributions to the country by way of grants, exports, loans and freebies. “It’s pandemic and we are attending to the immediate threat to lives,” Gunawardena said when the UNHRC adopted the new mandate. The Government said that the provisions of the PTA have been invoked to address heinous acts of terrorism committed on its people and pointed at the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks of 2019.
The Foreign Minister then projected how the GoSL in fact maintains regular, vibrant and cordial dialogue with the EU covering all aspects of bilateral relations. He quoted Article 12 (1) of Sri Lanka’s Constitution citing it ensures that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law. He said that Article 12 (2) of the Constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or other grounds.
He also rejected the claim that the PTA has been systematically used for arbitrary arrests and the detention of Muslim or other minority groups in Sri Lanka. The Foreign Minister also said that Sri Lanka’s labour rights, including health and safety conditions, are in compliance with the International Labour Organisation’s standards. However, mask exports from Sri Lanka has drastically declined as some leading manufacturers did not comply with the labour conditions during the pandemic.
The U.S. Resolution
Of all concerns, the resolution (Bipartisan House Res. 413) brought by nine U.S. Members of Congress-led by Deborah K. Ross, on 18 May urging the U.S. to work with the United Nations General Assembly, the United Nations Security Council, and the UNHRC to establish a credible and effective international mechanism for accountability following the war, was unexpected. Although such resolutions are common, they may help start looking at prosecutions in the U.S. and also call upon the UN mechanisms to think of credible and effective international mechanism.
“The U.S. can start prosecuting those within their borders. If the U.S. does decide to do that, then Sri Lankans in the U.S. or holding U.S. citizenship can be investigated and prosecuted. Also the U.S. can decide to investigate with or without the resolution and with people’s support, they can lobby and push for it,” said an International Human Rights expert, who did not want to be named.