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UN urges Sri Lanka to set up hybrid court for war crimes

Govt resists push to quickly deal with arbitrarily detained detainees, says human rights cases a domestic matter

UN urges Sri Lanka to set up hybrid court for war crimes

A Sri Lankan Tamil woman holds a picture of a missing loved one during a gathering to remember those who have been missing for nearly a decade since the end of the country's drawn out separatist war in the capital Colombo on Feb. 14, 2018. (Photo by Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)

A U.N. investigative body is calling on the Sri Lankan government to establish a hybrid court to handle allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses.

The U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said it should be comprised of international judges, lawyers and investigators.

The government was embroiled for three decades in a brutal civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an insurgent group that aimed to carve out a separate Tamil homeland in the country's North and East. It was finally defeated by the Sri Lankan military in 2009.

The LTTE and the government were both accused of human rights violations during the civil war. The U.N. said at least 40,000 civilians were killed during the final stages of the conflict.

In its report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, the OHCHR highlighted the country's failure to comply with some of the commitments it has made.

Michelle Bachelet Jeria, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, recommended the government invite the OHCHR to establish a fully-fledged country office to monitor the human rights situation.

It would be tasked with providing technical assistance and giving advice on the how to implement the recommendations made by the High Commissioner, the OHCHR, and other human rights mechanisms.

"The lack of progress shows that the situation of human rights in the country should remain firmly on the agenda of the Human Rights Council," said Jeria, in a March 7 report called “Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka."

It is due to be formally presented for discussion with U.N. member states on March 20 in Geneva.

The report noted that all cases of detainees held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act needed to be reviewed, with the aim of either releasing them or bringing them quickly to trial.

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"Promptly investigate and prosecute all allegations of torture and other gross human rights violations," said Jeria, the former president of Chile.

She said member countries should continue to accompany Sri Lankans in their efforts to address past violations by supporting the establishment of adequate systems of accountability.

On a positive note, she noted the government has been actively engaging with the OHCHR and other U.N. human rights mechanisms since January 2015.

However, both former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and incumbent Maithripala Sirisena have rejected the idea, arguing that such cases must be handled domestically.

Both presidents have made many promises to the Tamils about rebuilding their lives and forging a new constitution.

Meanwhile, the World Patriotic Lankan Forum organized a protest against Jeria's report at the UNHRC headquarters in Geneva on March 10.

It called on member countries to refrain from pressuring Sri Lanka.

Arul Prakasam, a Tamil rights activist from Mannar, said the U.N.’s participation in the transitional justice process, including criminal prosecutions, would help restore the confidence of the victims’ families.

Prakasam, who fights for people’s land rights in the North, listed a litany of problems Sri Lanka needs to overcome.

"No justice for torture victims, arbitrary detention, unlawful arrest, sexual violence, and a lack of confidence in local police and legal officers," he said.

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