Why the UN Human Rights Council Must Adopt a Strong Resolution on Sri Lanka

By Jim McDonald, Sri Lanka Country Specialist, Amnesty International USA

Today, the human rights situation in Sri Lanka is grim. The government is silencing and intimidating dissenting voices. The space for civil society, independent of government control, is shrinking alarmingly. If present trends continue, we could see a deterioration in the protection of human rights, with grave implications for the security of Sri Lanka’s people, particularly vulnerable minorities.

The UN Human Rights Council is meeting now in Geneva. The Council is responsible for promoting and protecting human rights around the world. It’s crucial that the Council adopt a robust resolution for transitional justice and accountability in Sri Lanka. International pressure is needed, now more than ever, to support the brave human rights activists in Sri Lanka who are under threat.

Some more detail may be in order. As documented in Amnesty’s new report, “Old Ghosts in New Garb: Sri Lanka’s Return to Fear,” the new government under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has over the past year targeted human rights organizations, lawyers, journalists, law enforcement officers and political opponents. The intention is twofold: (a) to suppress those critical of government decisions and the prevailing narrative promulgated by government supporters, and (b) to obstruct efforts towards transitional justice for crimes committed by the security forces during the past several decades. Sri Lanka endured a 26-year civil war with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The war ended in 2009 with a government military victory over the Tigers. As documented by Amnesty International, the United Nations and others, both sides committed gross human rights abuses and war crimes. But in the vast majority of cases, no one has been held accountable. And in one case where the courts convicted a soldier for the massacre of eight Tamil civilians in 2000, President Rajapaksa pardoned him in March 2020.

Why would President Gotabaya Rajapaksa want to obstruct efforts for justice for crimes during the war? He was Defence Secretary in the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa (his older brother and now Prime Minister) during 2005–2015. He oversaw the military campaign to defeat the Tigers, which culminated in its final bloody months with thousands of civilian casualties. He may not find it to be in his self-interest to have a thorough, independent review of the security forces’ actions and those who directed them.

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Sri Lanka, the government found another cover for greater control and repression. The police announced that anyone criticizing the government’s COVID-19’s response could be arrested under the guise of curbing the spread of misinformation. Seventeen people were arrested within the first month of Sri Lanka’s lockdown for sharing “fake news.”

The government’s COVID-19 response has also resulted in further discrimination against the island’s Muslim minority. Although the World Health Organization’s Sept. 4, 2020 interim guidance allows for either burial or cremation of COVID-19 victims, for most of the past year the Sri Lankan government mandated forced cremations for all those who died or were suspected to have died due to COVID-19, which runs contrary to Muslim religious practices. UN experts said that this policy amounts to a “human rights violation.” The government reversed this policy on Feb. 25 of this year after sustained pressure from people within Sri Lanka, the UN, Amnesty International and others. Last April, the government arrested Hejaaz Hizbullah, a prominent Muslim lawyer, under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, a day after he joined others in writing to President Rajapaksa protesting the forced cremation policy. He remains in detention, without the government having produced credible evidence against him.

The UN Human Rights Council needs to launch a new process to end impunity and support accountability in Sri Lanka for past crimes under international law, as well as to deter future violations against minorities and civil society activists. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should be mandated to maintain monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, and to collect, analyze and preserve evidence for future prosecutions, whether in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. Sri Lanka is not immune from international pressure. For example, it may be no coincidence that Hejaaz Hizbullah was finally produced in court on February 19, just days before the new UN Human Rights Council session was to begin. Human rights activists and persecuted minorities in Sri Lanka are looking to the international community for support. The UN Human Rights Council must not disappoint them.

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