UNHRC raises several concerns on SL, including release of Duminda Silva and detention of Hizbullah
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet raised several concerns on Sri Lanka during the 48th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) which commenced in Geneva, Switzerland today (13).
The concerns on Sri Lanka included the recent state of emergency, the release of former MP Duminda Silva, the decision to drop the charges against former Navy Commander Wasantha Karannagoda, and the continued detention of activist Hejaaz Hizbullah.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights also called for a timeline on when Sri Lanka hopes to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
She claimed that the current social, economic and governance challenges faced by Sri Lanka indicate the corrosive impact that militarisation and the lack of accountability continue to have on fundamental rights, civic space, democratic institutions, social cohesion and sustainable development.
Speaking of the state of emergency declared in the country on 30 August, she said that her Office will be closely monitoring the emergency regulations.
”The emergency regulations are very broad and may further expand the role of the military in civilian functions.”
Noting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent meeting with some civil society leaders, she encourages broader dialogue and steps to open Sri Lanka’s civic space.
“Regrettably, surveillance, intimidation and judicial harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and families of the disappeared has not only continued, but has broadened to a wider spectrum of students, academics, medical professionals and religious leaders critical of government policies,” she said, observing that several peaceful protests and commemorations have been met with excessive use of force and the arrest or detention of demonstrators in quarantine centres.
“New regulations on civil society groups are being drafted, and it is widely feared that they will further tighten restrictions on fundamental freedoms. I urge that the draft be made public to allow the broadest possible discussion.”
The UN High Commissioner further raised concerns over developments in judicial proceedings in a number of emblematic human rights cases, including the Attorney General’s decision not to proceed with charges against former Navy commander Wasantha Karannagoda in the case of the enforced disappearances of 11 men in 2008 and 2009.
She pointed out that despite various inquiries, the victims of the Easter Sunday bombings in 2019 and religious leaders continue to call urgently for truth and justice, and a full account of the circumstances that permitted those attacks.
She also mentioned the President’s recent pardon of a former member of parliament, Duminda Silva, who was convicted for killing a politician in 2011, stating that it also risks eroding confidence in the rule of law and judicial process.
“I am deeply concerned about further deaths in police custody, and in the context of police encounters with alleged drug criminal gangs, as well as continuing reports of torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials.”
In June, 16 prisoners who had been convicted under the problematic Prevention of Terrorism Act and who were nearing the end of their sentences, were pardoned.
“An Advisory Board was established to which detainees under the Act can apply for their cases to be reviewed, and I urge a speedy resolution to these long-standing cases.”
The Government has reaffirmed its intention to revisit the Act and established a Cabinet sub-committee for this purpose, she noted.
“However, I am deeply concerned about the continued use of the Act to arrest and detain people. Lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah has now been detained for 16 months under the Act without credible evidence presented before a court. Likewise, Ahnaf Jazeem, a teacher and poet, has been detained without charge since May 2020.”
She urged an immediate moratorium on the use of the Act and that a clear timeline be set for its comprehensive review or repeal.
The UN High Commissioner said that although a National Policy for Reparations was approved in August and reparation payments and reconciliation programs have continued with the Office of Missing Persons also in operation, it needs to inspire confidence among victims.
“I stress again the importance of transparent, victim-centred and gender sensitive approaches and that reparations programs must be accompanied by broader truth and justice measures.”
She also noted that last month, the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions decided to initiate a special review of the national Human Rights Commission to determine its compliance with the Paris Principles, indicating its concerns about the appointment process of the Commission and its effectiveness in discharging its human rights mandate.
Against this backdrop, she said her Office’s work to implement the accountability-related aspects of Resolution 46/1 has begun, pending recruitment of a start-up team.
“We have developed an information and evidence repository with nearly 120,000 individual items already held by the UN, and we will initiate as much information-gathering as possible this year.”
Bachelet urged Member States to ensure the budget process provides the necessary support so that her Office can fully implement this work.
“I encourage Council members to continue paying close attention to developments in Sri Lanka, and to seek credible progress in advancing reconciliation, accountability and human rights.”