US out of world rights body dims chance of Sri Lankan justice

Campaigners believe America's absence should not be used to dodge accountability for past war crimes
US out of world rights body dims chance of Sri Lankan justice

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. (Photo by Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)

Sri Lankan campaigners seeking justice for 1983-2009 civil war-related crimes are monitoring the impact of the United States pulling out of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

The council, formed in 2006 and based in Geneva, has been at the center of international pressure on the Sri Lankan government to account for thousands of civilian deaths and disappearances.

The U.S. withdrew from the UNHRC in June alleging political bias and hypocrisy by some of the revolving 46-member nations elected by the U.N. General Assembly.

Washington said it could rejoin if the rights body is reformed. But various international commentators noted that the current absence of the U.S. from the council could weaken the U.N.'s ability to exert pressure over human rights abuses around the world, including in Sri Lanka.

Despite its pull-out from the UNHRC, the U.S. has said that it will continue to "assist" Sri Lanka to fulfill its undertakings regarding past rights violations.

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However, it is unclear what this sugar-coated statement might mean in terms of the willingness or otherwise of the U.S. to apply specific diplomatic and other pressure on the Sri Lankan government for more concerted action.

Up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians are believed to have been killed in the final months of the civil war against secessionist rebels known as the Tamil Tigers.

As many as 100,000 people died in the conflict and by one estimate 12,000 disappeared amid allegations of military extrajudicial killings.

After the war ended in May 2009, then president Mahinda Rajapaksa met with the U.N. secretary-general of that time, Ban Ki-moon, and agreed to an accountability probe.

However, the subsequent Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was more critical of abuses by the Tamil Tigers than it was of Sri Lanka's military, maintaining that civilian deaths were accidental.

In June 2010, a U.N.-appointed panel of experts called for an international investigation and that stance was backed by UNHRC resolutions in 2012, 1013 and 2014.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) under Navy Pillai released a report in September 2015 calling for the establishment of credible internal accountability mechanisms.

Maithripala Sirisena had been elected as Sri Lanka's new president in January 2015, with the change of government averting possible international sanctions over Rajapaksa's failure to adequately deal with war crimes.

The present Sri Lankan government has established an Office of Missing Persons (OMP) to investigate war-related disappearances.

While this has been seen as a step in the right direction, critics complain that the OMP lacks a specific timetable to resolve outstanding cases.

Meanwhile, there have been more than 500 days of continuous protests across Sri Lanka's northern and eastern provinces, where the civil war was concentrated, over a failure to account for the abductions and extrajudicial killings.

The Sri Lankan government informed a UNHRC session in March that it would establish a truth and reconciliation commission, a reparation office and judicial accountability mechanisms to try war crimes.

But the necessary legislation has still not been passed by the nation's parliament.

The Sri Lankan government has been given time until March 2019 by the UNHRC to fulfill its post-war justice commitments.

One Sri Lankan commentator said the recent withdrawal of the U.S. from the UNHCR should not be used by the government as an opportunity to evade honoring its commitments.

And he said international pressure should be maintained on Sri Lanka to finally address rights violations.

Wider reform efforts in Sri Lanka are also being stymied. Buddhist monks, former president Rajapaksa and even Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith have opposed aspects of proposed constitutional changes.

The reform proposals include devolving more power to provinces. Such devolution is linked to reconciliation efforts as it would give greater authority to ethnic Tamils in their home areas.

But the canvassed constitutional changes remain only in draft form as promised reforms move at a snail's pace amid constant backpedaling.

 

Kingsley Karunaratne is administrative secretary of the Rule of Law Forum, which is affiliated to the Asian Human Rights Commission. His organization works toward the radical rethinking and fundamental redesigning of justice institutions in order to protect and promote human rights.

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