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Action on Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council

March 19, 2021 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

The Human Rights Council (HRC) has now been in session for four weeks with discussions on human rights around the world. As we explored in a previous blog post, the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights offered a strong starting point for discussions on Sri Lanka. Throughout the Council sessions, the government of Sri Lanka has responded to the statements by the High Commissioner and other UN experts on human rights with an extraordinary series of lies and denials. 

After efforts to work together with the government of Sri Lanka on a new resolution failed, the Core Group on Sri Lanka brought forward a draft resolution in late February which drew on the High Commissioner’s report. That draft has been strengthened through negotiations with member states during dialogue at the HRC. The final resolution (A/HRC/46/L.1/Rev.1) will be put to a vote at the Council on Tuesday.

Although the strengthened resolution does not meet the demands of many in the Tamil community for Sri Lanka to be referred to the International Criminal Court, it represents a genuine step forward. We urge member states at the HRC to support it.

An earlier version of this post was amended to reflect the fact that the vote on the resolution will now take place on Tuesday 23 March. 

What does the resolution include? 

The resolution, if passed, would strengthen the capacity of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to collect, consolidate, analyse, and preserve evidence of human rights violations. This evidence would be used to support future accountability processes, advocate for victims and survivors, and support investigations and trials, including prosecutions under the principles of universal jurisdiction. During the interactive dialogue on Sri Lanka, the Deputy High Commissioner noted that the OHCHR has already accumulated extensive documentation on human rights violations and mass atrocity crimes in Sri Lanka from previous investigations. It is critical that this evidence gathering mechanism is adequately resourced and supported by the international community.

The resolution also proposes regular reporting by the High Commissioner to the Council, with an oral update in September 2021 followed by a full written update in March 2022. This recognises the ongoing deterioration of conditions in Sri Lanka and the need for sustained scrutiny by the international community. Regular attention on Sri Lanka at the Council is important because in the past, the government of Sri Lanka has responded to some human rights concerns when facing a looming Human Rights Council discussion. For example, in the run up to the current session writer Shakthika Sathkumara was finally acquitted of all charges on the orders of the Attorney General after almost two years fighting his case. During the session itself, the government finally announced an end to the policy of forced cremations (though only to impose severe and unjustifiable restrictions on where burials could take place).

Importantly, the resolution firmly rejects the idea that a domestic process can deliver accountability and reconciliation. What is needed is international action.

What next? 

The vote on the resolution will now take place on Tuesday 23 March. We urge all members of the Human Rights Council to support the resolution and provide some hope to victims and survivors of mass atrocity crimes and human rights violations in Sri Lanka.

If the resolution is passed, as we hope it will be, member states must stand ready to support the fullest implementation of commitments in the resolution, including through financial contributions where relevant.

Beyond the Human Rights Council 

The ongoing deterioration of conditions in Sri Lanka means that action through the Human Rights Council alone is not enough and the international community must make human rights front and centre of their bilateral relations with Sri Lanka. The resolution does not include a strong mandate on prevention and the international community must step up their actions to protect victim-survivor communities, human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers who are increasingly under attack in Sri Lanka.

States should back up their support of Human Rights Council action with bilateral action including applying sanctions against individuals credibly accused of human rights violations. They should adopt a coherent and consistent approach to future aid, trade, diplomatic, and military engagement with Sri Lanka which promotes respect for human rights, the rule of law, and democratic governance. Moreover they must support efforts to investigate and prosecute international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka, wherever and however possible, under the principles of extraterritorial and universal jurisdiction, as recommended by the High Commissioner.

It was good to see MPs across the House of Commons yesterday call for the UK to take strong action on Sri Lanka to support work at the Human Rights Council, including applying sanctions on individuals credibly accused of mass atrocity crimes and human rights violations. Look out for our next blog post for a summary of the debate.