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Democratic govt should not be waiting for UN experts

Sri Lanka should ensure the upholding of rights, dignity and well-being of its citizens
Democratic govt should not be waiting for UN experts

Relatives of disappeared family members staged a demonstration in Colombo in 2015. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)

Published: November 21, 2017 04:30 AM GMT
Updated: November 21, 2017 04:31 AM GMT

Successive Sri Lankan governments have ratified various international human rights’ treaties, but they are still being found wanting on home turf.

These treaties include provisions against torture, discrimination, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention.

These also protect freedom of expression, assembly, association and religion as well as rights to equality before the law, housing, education and healthcare. 

There are also specific measures set out in these treaties covering women, children, migrant workers and people with disabilities.

However, many Sri Lankans are still denied these rights and justice after violations war. Government has received more than 65,000 complaints of disappeared persons and there is no clarity about numbers killed – UN has said it could be about 70,000. 

The Sri Lankan government has made a series of commitments to all its citizens, focusing on abuses of the 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 with defeat of the LTTE which fought for a separate state.

This includes prosecution of human rights violations and establishing an effective ‘Office of Missing Persons’ as well as mechanism to deal with reparations.

Lack of progress on these issues led to series of public protests.

There have been a series of visits by United Nations rights’ experts and officials.

This looks superficially impressive.

However, actual implementation of their recommendations — as well as fulfillment of commitments the government has made to Sri Lankans — is far from impressive.

And during a recent visit by UN Special Rapporteur Pablo de Greiff, the government took the unprecedented step of stating it is not bound to implement UN expert recommendations.

Anyway, a democratically elected government should not be waiting for UN findings and recommendations in order to ensure the upholding of rights, dignity and well-being of its citizens.

As I write this, the Sri Lankan parliament is debating proposed constitutional changes following a public consultation process.

People from all walks of life presented their grievances, aspirations and suggestions, about a wide range of issues, covering historical and structural injustices related to the war and beyond.

However, many recommendations on issues such as power sharing — as well as gender, economic and social rights — appear unlikely to be implemented.

Some leading Buddhist monks and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, are now questioning even the need for a new constitution.

If there is a new constitution, it’s likely to be a political compromise.

But at the minimum I hope it will include a strong bill of rights and a further devolution of power. And measures to address injustices committed during or arising from the civil war and preventing such occurrences again.

On the ground, despite some positive changes, recurrence of old abuses is part of daily life, especially for Tamils in the war ravaged north.

For example, restrictions continue on formal mourning of war dead.

The military is still occupying large amounts of public and private lands and intruding into civilian activities.

And although the level of abuses is less than under previous government, even in 2017, there are reports of abductions and torture. And fresh arrests under a draconian anti-terror law that the government promised to repeal two years ago, under which I’m still under investigation for nearly 4 years

De Greiff rightly suggested it was wrong to equate reconciliation and transitional justice only to criminal accountability.

But it is surprising that he did not highlight the government’s backtracking on a commitment it made two years ago to establish a special judicial mechanism with participation of foreign judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators, in context of a large number of Sri Lankan survivors and victim’s families failed to obtain justice through domestic legal mechanisms.

And it is strange that De Greiff presented the cost of delaying land releases in terms of a disincentive for foreign investors more than as amajor problem for ordinary local people.

Overall, his comments don't appear to reflect the desperation, frustration and anger of victims and their families.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is preparing to present an update on Sri Lanka to the UN Human Rights Council in March next year.

I hope the update will present a realistic assessment, and insist on a timetable with clear benchmarks for implementation of commitments the government has already made to its citizens. 

I also hope member states of the UN will be wary of heaping premature and disproportionate praise on Sri Lankan government’s empty rhetoric and promises.

International involvement in transitional justice is essential.

However, Sri Lankans should be wary of depending too much on international involvement without pushing our government to  fulfill its own undertakings.

Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan human rights activist who was detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and is still under investigation with restrictions on free expression. He is a member of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors.

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