The National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (NHRCSL) aims to protect and uphold human rights standards in Sri Lanka. However it is not fit for purpose, either by design (Sri Lanka’s draconian 18th amendment taking away any notion of its independence) or by its actions (seemingly only the meek and unquestioning achieve high office within the organisation).
This was demonstrated in a recent formal exchange between democracy activist Ruki Fernando (the Head of the Human Rights in Conflict Programme of the Law and Society Trust) and the Chairman of the NHRCSL Rt. Hon. Justice Priyantha Perera.
Mr. Fernando wrote to Mr. Perera detailing a number of criticisms levelled against the administration of the NHRCSL. One allegation indicates that NHRCSL officers refused to accept sensitive complaints from victims in 2010 and 2011. More alarmingly, on the occasion that such complaints were received, they resulted in frequent harassment of the victims. Therefore it seems reasonable to assume that the NHRCSL is seemingly biased towards alleged perpetrators of violations at the expense of victims.
Alongside such discriminatory practice towards victims, Mr. Fernando also alleged that the NHRCSL operates behind a “veil of secrecy” in which it has failed to engage with civil society in light of human rights. In order to address this issue he outlined a number of useful mechanisms on how to do so, such as through education, complaint forms, annual reports and most importantly to publicly state whether the NHRCSL agrees with an independent international enquiry.
However, the response received by Mr Fernando from Mr. Perera displayed the toothlessness of the NHRCSL by failing to address Mr. Fernando’s criticisms. Instead generalist statements which emphasised the inefficiency and effectiveness of the NHRCSL were manifold, such as “your letter contains many aspects that go beyond our capacity to entertain or attend to” alongside a list of matters concerning engagement with civil society which went over the “purview of the NHRCSL.”
As an example Mr. Perera stated that informing civil society of the position of the HRC in response to the ratification of the Optional Protocol to Convention against Torture and Convention against Disappearances” was beyond the scope of his mandate. Yet a look at the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Act, No.21 1996 shows otherwise. Indeed under Artice 10 (f) the Commission has the mandate “to promote awareness of, and provide education in relation to, human rights” alongside Article 11(h) which states that it may “do all such other things as are necessary or conducive to the discharge of its functions.” The latter provision indicates that should the NHRCSL wish to act or inform civil society of its position on a matter, then it may. Thus the refusal to do so by Mr. Perera indicates unwillingness rather than inability. The letter ended with an escapist statement which identified human rights as a principle which is subject to the evolving standards of change within society:
“The NHRCSL too has come into existence as a result of the same unchangeable phenomenon of change. Developments and improvements in the sphere of human rights will follow suit, inevitably and eventually. It will be so even in the case of internationally accepted human rights.”
Having a body which is designed to uphold and promote human rights as intrinsic and universal principles instead release a statement which denies that this is a case and uses “cultural relativism,” as an excuse to avoid investigating the credible allegations of victims is beyond worrying.
Something must be done. Adoption of the Convention Against Torture and the Convention Againt Disappearances must be encouraged if Sri Lanka’s efforts towards addressing human rights violations are to be taken seriously. Furthermore, it is evident that is is most certainly the place of the NHRCSL to publicly state whether it agrees with an independent, international inquiry addressing both war crimes and human rights violations, particularly in light of the wealth of information and evidence available, regarding such matters. The NHRCSL must surely encourage and promote such active steps in order to prevent its existence from being labelled as futile.