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Presentation of the High Commissioner's report on Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka (Item 2)

20 March 2019

Mr President,
Colleagues, Friends,

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, and to present my report pursuant to Human Rights Council resolutions 30/1 and 34/1. The Office has sent an advanced version of the report to the Government of Sri Lanka and has given due consideration to the comments received, further to our routine procedures.

My report acknowledges the Government’s open dialogue and sustained cooperation with my Office. Working closely with the UN Resident Coordinator and her Senior Human Rights Advisor, we have continued to provide technical support, including through the UN Peacebuilding Fund, for Sri Lanka to implement this Council's resolutions 30/1 and 34/1.

I welcome the operationalization of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), following initial delays. The OMP plans to undertake the complex task of tracing the whereabouts of victims in a sensitive, thorough and objective manner, addressing the difficult situation of the victims’ families. I commend the establishment of the Office for Reparations, and look forward to the swift appointment of its Commissioners. My Office encourages the Government to enable these two institutions to function effectively and independently, and to link them to a broader approach aimed at justice, real accountability and truth-seeking.

Regarding the land occupied by the military in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, some progress has been noted, and further steps should be taken to complete this crucial process.

The steps I have just indicated are elements of Sri Lanka's commitment to broad institutional and reform measures made four years ago, in the context of implementing Human Rights Council resolution 30/1.

However, implementation of resolution 30/1 needs to be more consistent, comprehensive and accelerated. A contributing factor to delays appears to be a lack of common vision among the country’s highest leadership. Deadlock on these important issues is an additional – and avoidable – problem, with damaging impact currently on victims from all ethnic and religious groups and on society as a whole.

I appreciate the complexity of transitional processes. The events leading to the declaration of a state of emergency in March last year, and the constitutional crisis in October, created a political environment not conducive to the implementation of reform measures.

Today, my Office encourages the Government to implement a detailed and comprehensive strategy for the transitional process with a fixed timeline. Legislation on the establishment of an independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission could be an important next step.

As a former Minister of Defence who has worked in the context of a transition, I can highlight the importance of security sector reform as part of a transitional justice process. These reforms should include a vetting process to remove officers with questionable human rights records. The recent appointment to a senior position in the Sri Lankan Army of Major General Shavendra Silva, implicated in alleged serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, is a worrying development.

There has been minimal progress on accountability. My report details the steps taken over a lengthy period to address several emblematic cases, and the lack of progress in setting up a special judicial mechanism to deal with the worst crimes committed during the 2009 conflict. Continuing impunity risks fuelling communal or inter-ethnic violence, and instability. Resolving these cases, and bringing the perpetrators of past crimes to justice, is necessary to restore the confidence of victims from all communities.

Replacement of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, has been on the Government’s agenda for four years. I encourage the completion of this process, with measures to strengthen the draft law’s safeguards and oversight elements, and to tighten the definition of terrorist acts, which is currently too broad. I note with concern that individuals continue to be held under the PTA.

I am also troubled about continuing allegations of torture and other human rights violations by security forces, including sexual violence. Effective, transparent and independent investigations by the Government, as well as measures to prevent and end such practices, including through full implementation of the 2016 recommendations of the Committee Against Torture, would be positive.

Another step in the right direction would be an end to the surveillance of human rights defenders, reprisals against them, as well as against victims.
I am deeply concerned about the calls to reinstate the application of the death penalty after more than forty years of moratorium.

My Office highlights the critical role of Sri Lanka’s independent commissions, particularly the National Human Rights Commission. Respect for their independence and implementation of the Commissions’ recommendations are needed to entrench the rule of law in Sri Lanka. Appropriate cooperation with the Human Rights Commission is also essential for the participation of Sri Lankan personnel in United Nations peacekeeping operations.

This Council continues to have an essential role in accompanying the Government and people of Sri Lanka in their journey towards realizing the dignity, and rights of all members of society, irrespective of their sex, ethnic origin or belief.

In closing, I emphasise that in co-sponsoring resolutions 30/1 and 34/1, the Government recognized the need to address the past in order to build a future securely grounded in accountability, respect for human rights and the rule of law. For victims and for society, this need continues. There is an opportunity, now, to leave behind a past of violence and human rights violations, through bold determination and leadership at all levels of Government.

I thank you Mr. President.