Following a landmark international investigation, in September 2015 the United Nations released a major report on serious human rights violations in Sri Lanka occurring between 2002 and 2011. The document, known as the ‘OISL Report’ was clear in its view that many of those violations – perpetrated by both government and LTTE (‘Tamil Tiger’) forces – could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity if established in a court of law. Accordingly, it made a number of recommendations as to how Sri Lanka might begin to address these violations, as well as other patterns of abuses, in order to start laying the foundations for a sustainable peace.
In response, the government that came to power in Sri Lanka in 2015, acting through the UN Human Rights Council, made a series of promises to its citizens pledging to deal with the legacy of the war. Those promises were contained in Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1, which was co-sponsored by the government and unanimously adopted by Council members in October 2015. The Resolution requested the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to provide a comprehensive report on the implementation of these commitments at the 34th Session of the Human Rights Council in March 2017.
At the 34th session, and following “limited progress” on transitional justice by the government of Sri Lanka (according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights), the Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 34/1. Its effect was to renew the outstanding commitments contained within Resolution 30/1. It also extended for a further two years the monitoring mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with a request for a written update to the Council at its 37th Session (March 2018) as well as a comprehensive report at its 40th Session (March 2019).
Has the government fulfilled its promises? We provide an answer to that question below, by distilling Resolutions 30/1-34/1 into 25 key commitments and assessing the progress that has been made in relation to each. This evaluation – the latest of several conducted by the Sri Lanka Campaign over the past two years – is based on various media reports, analyses by Sri Lankan civil society groups and UN rights mechanisms, as well as the findings of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ recently released written update. The chart (right) illustrates the overall progress that has been made by the government over time. The table (below) illustrates the progress that has been made with respect to establishing the four transitional mechanisms pledged as part of Resolutions 30-1/34-1. A report version of our findings is available here.
Action through the Human Rights Council. What now?
The lack of progress identified in this report suggests that the government of Sri Lanka has a long way to go in bringing about a process of justice and reconciliation that deals, meaningfully and effectively, with the country’s past. As our findings indicate, a historic window of opportunity for change is not being capitalised upon – and that window is rapidly closing.
As we approach the expiry of the Human Rights Council (HRC) process in March 2019, and with national elections in 2019 and 2020 looming large on the horizon, the next 12 months will be critical for putting the agenda mandated by Resolutions 30-1 and 34-1 back on track. That is a responsibility that lies primarily with Sri Lanka’s leaders. But it is also a challenge which depends, crucially, on robust, principled and coordinated engagement from the international community. While some in Sri Lanka have already declared closed the window of opportunity on several of the toughest pledges contained under Resolutions 30/1 and 34/1 – and while many war survivors have lost hope and confidence in the ability of the government to deliver entirely – there is still much that can, and must, be done. The consequences of inaction are unacceptably high. And the victims and survivors of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka have already suffered too much and fought too hard.
On 21st March members of the Human Rights Council will hold a debate on Sri Lanka’s progress, following the presentation of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ update. We urge them to issue the strongest possible statements of concern which:
- Request the government of Sri Lanka to produce a clear timetable for implementation of its outstanding commitments, including the establishment of the four pledged mechanisms.
- Request the government of Sri Lanka to take urgent steps to deliver on accountability, including through the establishment of a hybrid judicial mechanism, as well as through incremental measures such as the strengthening of witness protection mechanisms, the retroactive incorporation of international crimes and modes of liability into domestic law, and the establishment of a Special Prosecutor’s office.
- Reinforce the High Commissioner’s warning that cases under universal jurisdiction will be pursued by member states in the absence of a credible accountability mechanism.
- Re-affirm the recommendations of the final report of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, with a request to the government to adopt a timetable for the implementation of its recommendations.
- Acknowledge the prevailing ground situation in the North and East, including persistent patterns of serious human rights violations, militarization, surveillance and intimidation, and the barrier that it poses to lasting reconciliation.
While encouraging member states to issue the strongest possible statements at the forthcoming general debate, we also look to them to begin to send some clear and unequivocal signals that March 2019 does not represent the end of the line for the HRC’s formal engagement – and that Sri Lanka will remain on its agenda if Resolutions 30-1 and 34-1 are not fulfilled, as looks almost certain. The window of opportunity to make headway with the kind of changes that are needed, while narrowing at a rapid speed, must be kept ajar.
At the same time, we urge member states to recognise that the continuation of a process of international engagement through the HRC is not itself sufficient to help bring about sustainable peace in Sri Lanka. As the Sri Lanka Campaign has said, time and time again, words by member states at the HRC in Geneva must be matched with deeds in both capitals and in Colombo. Too often over the past three years has the prioritization of trade, military-military cooperation, and efforts to shore up perceived political influence, trumped the kind of tough messaging and actions that are needed. It is past time for the international community to move beyond mere rhetoric and to take seriously its responsibility to those who have suffered, and who continue to suffer, in Sri Lanka.