Sri Lanka will not achieve genuine reconciliation and peace as long as impunity prevails – UN rights chief

Michelle Bachelet

UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet today urged the Sri Lankan Government to acknowledge the rights of the victims and families of the disappeared, urgently determine the fate or whereabouts of victims, bring perpetrators to justice and provide reparations.

The UN human rights chief stated this while delivering her statement during the ‘Update and Interactive dialogue on Sri Lanka’ at the 49th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Friday (March 04).

Bachelet said there have been some recent signs of increased engagement by the Government with UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)  and certain steps to initiate reforms.

The proposals to amend some provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and to release some detainees under the Act, are welcome initial steps, she said.

“I encourage the Government to take further steps to address the fundamental problems with the PTA, as well as undertake the deeper legal, institutional and security sector reforms that are critically needed, to put an end to impunity and prevent any recurrence of past violations.”

Bachelet said that regrettably, the past year has also seen further obstruction and setbacks to accountability. “Victims and their families continue to be denied truth and justice.  And the Government’s response to criticism has constricted democratic and civic space, including for essential human rights advocacy,” she said.

The High Commissioner noted that her February 2021 report identified a number of underlying trends that threaten human rights. “These trends continue to advance.”

Two years after the expression of commitments to pursue an “inclusive, domestically designed and executed reconciliation and accountability process” before this Council, the Government has still not produced a credible roadmap on transitional justice towards accountability and reconciliation, she said.

The UN Human Rights High Commissioner said she remains concerned by the continued suffering and anguish of victims and families of the disappeared, who call for truth and justice, and seek to commemorate their loved ones.

“I urge the Government to acknowledge their rights, urgently determine the fate or whereabouts of victims, bring perpetrators to justice and provide reparations,” she said.

Bachelet said victims of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings and religious leaders also continue to call for justice, reparation and a full account of the circumstances of those attacks, in particular the role of the security establishment.

“I am also deeply concerned by continued reports of surveillance, harassment and intimidation of civil society organisations, human rights defenders and journalists by police and intelligence services.”

“Repeated incidents of deaths in custody and in alleged armed encounters with police are alarming. We also continue to receive allegations of ill-treatment and torture by police and military. This highlights the importance of fundamental security-sector reforms,” she said.

The statement further reads:

“Our previous reports to the Council have detailed the failure of successive Governments of Sri Lanka to prosecute international crimes and serious human rights violations, and to pursue an effective transitional justice process.

The current Government has not only demonstrated its unwillingness to pursue accountability – it has incorporated military officials implicated in alleged war crimes into the highest levels of Government, reinforcing a narrative of impunity. For these reasons, and to provide some form of redress for victims. I have called on the Council to pursue alternate strategies to advance accountability at the international level.

Regarding our implementation of the accountability related aspects of Resolution 46/1, preparatory work is underway. Our team will analyse the information that has been consolidated in the evidence repository using a criminal justice perspective, with a view to identifying gaps and priorities for further information collection, and incorporating a victim-centred approach.

I must note the considerable scale of the work required from my Office, noting that  it will require time, adequate human and financial resources, and cooperation by States, including to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka, through judicial proceedings in their jurisdictions, under accepted principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction.

The mandate under the resolution 46/1 presents an important opportunity to pursue accountability for serious international crimes committed in Sri Lanka. This is a vital task: as long as impunity prevails, Sri Lanka will not achieve genuine reconciliation and sustainable peace.”