Looking for the Missing

by Jeevan Thiagarajah, ‘Daily News,’ Colombo, August 22, 2016

The Office of Missing Persons (OMP) was legislated. It has elicited words of appreciation from several quarters. In doing we may forget similar inquiries from the past.

The JVP commenced its second insurrection in the South, purportedly in protest against the Indo-Lanka Accord. This was a result of the JVP being falsely implicated for the riots of July 1983 which either gave the leadership a very good reason to go underground or they were simply driven underground to survive as a party. Key UNP leaders were among those assassinated. With the Public Security Ordinance and Prevention of Terrorism Act in force during this period, government and paramilitary forces responded by engaging in a systematic practice of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture. Thousands of ordinary Sinhalese civilians were killed. Regulations were promulgated under the PSO permitting arbitrary arrest and detention either for preventive or investigative purposes, as well as to give authorised officers the authority to bury or cremate dead bodies. If the JVP had not been driven underground the horrendous history of that period may have well been different.

Extra-judicial killings

In the absence of proof, the dead remain classified as missing being, the body and not the person. As an All Island Commission stated, “although bodies were found in a mere six hundred and 47 cases, in the given context, the word disappearance is only a euphemism for the death caused by extra-judicial killings”. Investigating murder is the task of a country’s criminal investigation apparatus being the investigative and prosecutorial departments, the Attorney General’s department.

Illustrative of the record of past inquiries are the work of CoI which looked at involuntary removal or disappearances of persons in the Central, North Western, North central and Uva provinces which received fifteen thousand and 45 complaints, six thousand four hundred and 43 complaints were inquired into and eight thousand six hundred and two complaints were remaining at the conclusion of the Commission.

The CoI into disappearances in the Western, Southern, and Sabaragamuwa Provinces received eight thousand seven hundred and 39 complaints, of which 191 were from returned detainees and twelve were of physical injury. It published the names of the disappeared, names of complainants, addresses of complainants and relationship between the disappeared and complainant.

About 7,761 complaints were inquired into and 542 remained at the conclusion of the Commission. The Commission found that 7,239 complaints were proved. About 9,744 witnesses testified before the Commission, including 54 special witnesses. The Commissioners recommend that the investigations by the IGP should be under the supervision of the Attorney General and be referred to the Attorney General for the determination of the appropriate legal proceedings that should ensure.

The report included a section titled “Tamils Lost in Colombo” which found that “[t]he evidence before this Commission is that the issue of the involuntary removal/disappearances in Colombo of persons of Tamil origin should not be subsumed in the phenomenon of involuntary removals/ disappearances that occurred in Southern Sri Lanka.”

The CoI into disappearances (All Island) had 10,136 complaints handed over to the Commission from the three zonal Commissions. About 6,345 were fixed for inquiry. Of those, 4,473 were inquired into by the Commission. Of the 654 complaints pertaining to returned detainees, the Commission inquired into 384 of them. Significantly, the passage of time and the loss of hope were cited as major factors in non-appearance of complainants.

Bringing closure

The three examples cited show testimonies have been recorded. facts ascertained in some instances. reasons to look further into homicides provided whilst the identity of those not heard is known.

The OMP of the future should not look to rerecord what is known. It should rather hold to account agencies whose task it is to look at homicides. It can call for the testimony of those willing where they have not been heard. The OMP and parties such as the TNA and JVP can in fact support victims in making submissions.

The Human Rights Commission was for some time also looking into disappearances. The HRC can well support victims’ families in instances where past commissions have recommended prosecutions or investigations by criminal investigation agencies. Victims have been traumatised at all stages of the legal process, ranging from transfer of cases (from local courts to judicial forums situated in predominantly majority provinces or the capital) to painfully protracted legal proceedings which they are required to attend despite financial and social hardships.

Recommendations of these bodies – even when they have been functioning credibly – have had negligible impact insofar as actual prosecutions emanating from these findings are concerned. The question of legal accountability for grave human rights violations of civilians of the majority Sinhala ethnicity as well as the minority Tamil and Muslim ethnicity and others has remained unaddressed for decades.

The quote on persons of Tamil origin reported missing before the Southern Commission and its response requires further inquiry at the least.

The rush to pat ourselves on the back for legislating the OMP we must not forget past recorded history particularly those in reports which refer to the law, the grey areas, the weaknesses, the loopholes, loss of evidence and shortage of human resources in the arena of investigations and prosecutions. Even if many of these sources of concern are addressed there are practical hurdles to overcome seen clearly in the ongoing investigations pertaining to Ekneligoda.

Sri Lankan Justice Has No Place for ‘Accountable Amnesties’

by James Ross, Human Rights Watch, New York, August 22, 2016

Commission Recommendation Conflicts with UN Resolution

It’s time to add “accountable amnesties” to notable oxymorons like “open secret” and “working vacation.”

A Tamil woman cries as she holds up an image of her family member who disappeared during the civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at a vigil to commemorate the international day of the disappeared in Colombo August 30, 2013.

A Tamil woman cries as she holds up an image of her family member who disappeared during the civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at a vigil to commemorate the international day of the disappeared in Colombo August 30, 2013. © 2013 Reuters


According to Sri Lankan media reports, the Presidential Commission to Investigate Complaints Regarding Missing Persons is recommending those accused of human rights abuses during the final months of Sri Lanka’s war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) be allowed to seek so-called “accountable amnesty.”

The commission reportedly says in its final report that those charged with violations of international human rights or humanitarian law should be investigated by local authorities, prosecuted by the attorney general, and tried before local judges in a special high court. This is contrary to the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution last October, which recognized the need for “Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators” in a Sri Lankan tribunal.

The commission also says that those charged should be given an opportunity to explain their actions before the planned Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Commission chairman Maxwell Paranagama told the New Indian Express the commission should “consider giving some of those who pleaded guilty an accountable amnesty. They will not be allowed to go scot free but will be given an appropriate punishment.” This would apparently amount to paying fines and forfeiting promotions.

Were the Sri Lankan government to adopt this approach, a military commander or government official may be able to buy their way out of a criminal prosecution for summary killings, torture, and enforced disappearances by admitting their crimes to a non-judicial body and presumably not having to face evidence presented against them.

It’s true that South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided full amnesties to those who confessed their guilt. As Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has recognized, this approach is now regarded as outdated and falls short of international standards.

Sri Lanka is obligated to prosecute those responsible for serious crimes in violation of international law. A slap on the wrist for grave crimes is not justice – even if it comes with public admissions of guilt. The thousands of victims of abuses and their families from all sides in Sri Lanka’s war should not be left out of the accountability process. All Sri Lankans need to see those responsible for atrocities appropriately punished.

“Accountable amnesty” evokes all the seriousness of “jumbo shrimp” – it’s not a real way forward. Transitional justice in Sri Lanka needs to involve genuine trials, with the added expertise and protection offered by foreign judges, prosecutors, and investigators – and impose punishments that the fit the crime.

America Shouldn’t Rush to Support Sri Lanka’s Military

by Taylor Dibbert, ‘The National Interest,’ August 18, 2016

Sri Lankan politician and officer Sarath Fonseka. Wikimedia Commons/Rajith Vidanaarachchi




Colombo needs to shape up before it gets rewarded by Washington.

The United States is poised to deepen ties with Sri Lanka’s military. Such an initiative would likely include increased military cooperation between the two countries, training programs and possibly an uptick in military assistance heading to the war-torn island nation. While seemingly good intentions may be underpinning this policy shift, the Obama administration would be making a big mistake by moving in this direction. Accordingly, Washington should urgently reconsider its current approach.

The USS New Orleans, a U.S. Navy ship, just visited Sri Lanka. That’s the second ship to the country in the past few months. “The United States looks forward to working with the Sri Lanka Navy as a key force for maritime security and stability,” U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives Atul Keshap said in a recent press release. Mr. Keshap had more to say on July 27 in Colombo, the capital.

Even though the precise steps for deeper military cooperation remain unclear, this looks like a profoundly disappointing development. After all, Sri Lanka’s military, and we’re not just talking about the army, is in desperate need of reform. The country’s military has been plagued by allegations of international human-rights and humanitarian law violations, including war crimes and crimes against humanity that were committed during the end of country’s civil war. No one has been held accountable to date. Due to human-rights concerns, the United States has maintained a limited military relationship with Sri Lanka for many years. Direct American military assistance ended in 2007, but the Chinese stepped in with alacrity.

Unfortunately, there have also been ongoing reports of torture and sexual violence, among other human-rights violations, committed by military personnel more recently. Nonetheless, in spite of all these credible allegations, Sri Lanka’s new government has given no genuine indication that it’s really thinking of reforming its military. To make matters worse, these transgressions occur with near total impunity, a situation that encourages more human-rights violations. Perpetrators simply do not believe that they will be held accountable.

Colombo has also been prevaricating on the controversial, yet hugely significant, issue of wartime accountability. Here, it’s helpful to keep in mind that Sri Lanka’s military is almost exclusively Sinhalese, yet most of the people killed during the war’s tragic finish were Tamil civilians. On the one hand, the coalition government has ostensibly committed to a transitional justice process that would include a truth commission and an accountability mechanism. On the other hand, the government still isn’t even explaining the (controversial) issues pertaining to transitional justice to its largely ethnic Sinhalese voting base. There are legitimate concerns that the government is not serious about transitional justice and that the ostensible commitment to this agenda is merely a way to placate the international community.

Instead of moving in the right direction vis-à-vis military reform or some semblance of justice for past atrocities, high-level military officials (who almost certainly have blood on their hands) have recently been promoted. For example, Sarath Fonseka is now a cabinet member. Mr. Fonseka is an alleged war criminal; he played a key role in the military defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009, ending a civil war that lasted nearly three decades.

More broadly, Colombo has yet to begin a process of demilitarization. Instead, high levels of militarization across the country’s Tamil-majority Northern and Eastern Provinces have persisted. The military has its hands in a diverse array of civilian affairs, something that has clear and extremely negative effects on the civilian population.

Admittedly, military ties are just one part of bilateral engagement, and the Obama administration has been keen to reset a relationship that soured under the increasingly authoritarian Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country’s previous president, who ruled from 2005 until early 2015.

Washington is right to want Sri Lanka’s military to become more professional, although that’s going to be a long, slow process. Enhanced military cooperation between the two countries at this time would almost certainly ossify Sri Lanka’s intransigent attitude towards a genuine process of military reform and accountability that’s long overdue.

If the Obama administration really does want to help foster lasting changes, it should hold off on deepening military ties. And, before even beginning such a process, Colombo should take concrete steps to show its serious about comprehensive security sector reform.

To conclude, Sri Lanka’s search for truth and justice—especially for war-weary Tamils—looks set to become even more complicated. This unfortunate reality deserves to be recognized, especially within Washington’s corridors of power. After all, it’s not too late for the Obama administration to reconsider what appears to be a major unforced error.

Taylor Dibbert is a New Leader at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. The views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter: @taylordibbert.

Image: Sri Lankan politician and officer Sarath Fonseka. Wikimedia Commons/Rajith Vidanaarachchi

Enforced Disappearances in Sri Lanka

Legacy and ongoing challenges

by M.C.M. Iqbal, ‘Groundviews,’ May 19, 2016

(This is an abridged version of a presentation made at a meeting at the University of London on 25th April, 2016. The full version can be read here)

Enforced disappearance of persons remains one of the widely known human rights violations in Sri Lanka. The machinery that had been set up during the past to perpetrate such incidents appears to have slowed down as a consequence to the passing of a Resolution at the UNHRC in September, 2015. However, this machinery could be switched on again if those in authority so desire. Dismantling this machinery and destroying the remains, is a challenge the government has to face.

Image courtesy ‘Tamil Guardian’

The government has to now deal with an untenable number of complaints of disappearances that have been lodged with various national and international institutions calling for help to trace those who have disappeared. A bulk of the complaints relate to either the disappearances of persons after being abducted, handed to the security forces by wives or other relatives in response to a call by the military during the closing days of the war, or of those who surrendered to them in the presence of witnesses. There are also allegations of torture and sexual abuse of persons who had been in custody. Having to deal with these complaints along with those of enforced disappearances, to the satisfaction of the victims, is a daunting legacy the government has to face.

Long years of Emergency Rule and the availing of the obnoxious provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, have blunted the knowledge of the Police and the security forces of the manner in which they should deal with law and order issues during peace time. Extracting information and/or confessions from suspects by torturing them, continues to be the norm. The forces appear to know no other way in which investigations into allegations against suspects could be conducted. The government is now left with a legacy of a Police force that has gained experience in performing more military duties than civilian functions. Bringing about a metamorphosis in their mentality and methods of investigation is another challenge the Government has to face to restore law and order

Persistent pressure on the Government to remove the Emergency Regulations (ER) made the previous regime, remove it ostensibly.[1] But soon afterwards the much maligned provisions of the ER were tagged on to the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) making it more virulent than it was before. [2]

It is the provisions of the PTA that enables persons to be abducted and detained instead of being arrested. Consequently there has arisen a need to remove the PTA from the laws of the land. The Prime Minister of Sri Lanka has stated recently that soon a British style anti-terrorism law will be introduced in place of the existing PTA.[3] Let us hope that the new law does not turn out to be the same wine in a different bottle.

The culture of impunity became endemic among the police and the security forces of Sri Lanka some years ago. That legacy contributed to enforced disappearances becoming so widespread. Many members of the Police and Security Forces who had been perpetrating abductions, torture and enforced disappearances in the past, have a mind-set that makes them feel they will not be made to face the consequences of their misconduct. Courts require evidence beyond reasonable doubt to deal with alleged perpetrators. The Central Zone Commission made a specific recommendation to take disciplinary action against police officers who had violated departmental procedures while dealing with complaints of enforced disappearances. [4]

During its investigations it found that Police Information Books in some stations had been destroyed despite a specific circular issued by the IGP to preserve them. Detention Registers of certain Police Stations did not contain the names of persons taken into custody while they were there in the Diet Registers of the Station. No disciplinary action was taken in such cases. A clear case of a witness to an incident relating to disappearances who had given evidence before the Commission, being threatened by the alleged perpetrator, is reported in Interim Report VII of the Central Zone Commission with a recommendation to deal with the officer concerned. This had been disregarded. Similarly, in spite of some of the Commissions of Inquiry into enforced disappearances finding evidence indicating certain persons responsible for causing said disappearances, hardly any of them have been held accountable. Perhaps the same fate awaits those who may be found to responsible by the current Commission on Missing Persons. Such matters contributed to the growth of impunity.

The mandates of the Commissions appointed by President Chandrika Bandaranaike and the mandate of the Paranagama Commission have overlapping periods. Consequently the question arises whether the government has decided not to accept the findings of the Commissions appointed in 1994 and 1998 in respect to enforced disappearances during the overlapping period. The presence of many reports of Commissions of Inquiry into enforced disappearances makes it necessary for a comparative study into the findings of all these reports, to taken any meaningful action.

Among the findings of the set of Commissions appointed during President Chandrika Bandaranaike’s time, [5] is evidence on the many mass graves and torture chambers in different parts of the country. These have not been probed in depth, despite a recommendation to do so. If the Government is determined to wipe out impunity and make enforced disappearances a thing of the past, these recommendations need to be taken seriously.

Recently in a case of a writ of mandamus at the Magistrate’s Court of Mullaitivu, a military officer who testified had stated on December 2015 that the names of the persons referred to in the case concerned, were not on a list of the names of persons who had surrendered. When this case came up before the Magistrate on 17th February, 2016, the officer concerned was ordered by Court to furnish the list to Court on the next date, viz. April 20th. On that date neither the witness nor the State Counsel attended Court with the document. The case had then to be postponed for 17th May 2016.[6] 

Whether the document would be produced on that date is anybody’s guess. The absence of co-operation by the military to let the judiciary deal effectively with cases concerning enforced disappearances is another of the challenges the government has to face.

The need to include enforced disappearances as a crime was accepted by the Government only in September 2015. It had agreed to ratify the UN Convention on Disappearances of Persons in December 2015. It is still to be made part of the domestic laws of the country. According to international law, the crime of enforced disappearance is a continuous crime. It gets completed as a crime only at the point at which the fate and whereabouts of a disappeared person is finally determined. In the absence of retrospective legislation, there will be a juridical barrier to prosecutions in such cases. This has to be dealt with if the government is keen to put an end to the continuing agitation of the families of the victims of enforced disappearances who are still waiting for justice.

The Government has stated recently that laws to create a permanent office on missing persons to deal with the various issues relating to enforced disappearances, is in the process of being finalized[7]. Let us hope that it is not going to be another mirage.

A recommendation made by UNHRC resolution to deal with the human rights violations that took place during the conflict speaks of the need for such cases to be dealt by a hybrid court. Whether this would actually happen is yet to be seen.

In dealing with perpetrators of disappearances, the Attorney General has to get the services of the Police Department to get necessary investigations done and statements recorded. Whether the police would co-operate in doing so, especially if the perpetrator is a police officer, is debatable. Past performances of the police in such matters speak for themselves. Besides, can the present government deal with such cases diligently, while it is faced with the legacy of the Attorney-General’s Department consisting of personnel most of whom are known to be loyal to the regime that failed to deal with complaints of enforced disappearances of persons effectively? This was one of the issues raised by the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons when they found the Attorney General’s representative leading evidence before the Commission of Inquiry into Certain cases of Serious Human Rights Violations also known as the Udalagama Commission.[8]

That eventually led to IIGEP to abort their mission stating that the government does not have the will to promote or protect human rights. Whether the current government would take the necessary steps to avoid being branded in that manner, is to be seen.

A recommendation had been made in the Reports[9] of two[10] of the Disappearances Commission appointed by President Chandrika Bandaranaike on the need to create an independent Public Prosecutor with powers to institute criminal prosecutions after collecting sufficient evidence through his own investigating officers instead of through the Attorney General. This recommendation remains to be acted on.

Amnesty International had pointed out in one of its reports, that intimidation of witnesses can rise to the level of the witnesses themselves being abducted and caused to be disappeared.[11] Effective measures to protect witnesses are yet to be taken. Whether the Witness Protection Authority set up recently can perform this function effectively, is to be seen.

Article 6 of the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances makes it obligatory for Governments to take ‘measures to hold any person who commits, orders, solicits, induces the commission of, or attempts to commit’ such an offence, criminally responsible for the offence. This is not yet part of the law in Sri Lanka. The Government will have to face the challenge of having to adopt appropriate laws after ratifying the Convention, as it has agreed to do so. This Convention does not condone the causing of disappearances even during a war.

The Government is faced with the legacy of persistent misrule by a regime that thought it was invincible. Condoning and overlooking the breaches of the rule of law by its agents led to its demise. If that pattern is allowed to continue unchecked and appropriate remedial measures are not taken diligently, the perpetrators of human rights violations and disappearances in particular, would continue to be a law unto themselves. The current regime has to face the challenge of disciplining the very same State machinery that brought disrepute to the previous regime and the Country itself. The lessons learned should not be in vain. It is hoped that the State would henceforth be seen as protector of its citizens and not as a perpetrator of abductions, torture and enforced disappearances or as protector of persons who had committed such offences.

[1] The EmergencyRegulations were removed in August, 2011 – https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/09/07/sri-lanka-bait-and-switch-emergency-law

[2] Ibid.

[3] Daily Mirror of 2nd May, 2016.

[4] This is from the personal knowledge of the writer who was the Secretary to that Commission.

[5] That includes the three Zonal Commissions appointed in 1994 and the All Island Commission appointed in 1998.

[6] Vide  The Tamil Guardian of 22.4.2016  at http://tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=17745

[7] “Laws to create office on missing persons by May-June”, Colombo Gazette, 31 March 2016,http://colombogazette.com/2016/03/31/laws-to-create-office-on-missing-persons-by-may-june/.

[8] A legal opinion drafted during that time (20.06.2007) by two highly respected retired  judges of the Supreme Court, the late Justice Mark Fernando and Justice CV Wigneswaran,  concluded that the ‘competent, ethical, professional and impartial performance’ of state law officers with the 2006 Commission had been compromised as a result.

[9]Final report of the 1994 Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa Disappearances Commission, Sessional Paper No. V, 1997, at pp. 69, 83 and 175.

[10]Report of the 1998 All-Island Disappearances Commission, at p. 16.

[11] Amnesty International, ‘Sri Lanka: Extrajudicial Executions, ‘Disappearances’ and Torture,’1987-1990, AI Index, ASA/37/21/90, September 1990, at pp. 27-28.

The Halfway Mark

by Sri Lanka Campaign, London, August 2, 2016

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) met last month to discuss, among other things, Sri Lanka’s progress in implementing the process they agreed last September to build a lasting peace based upon justice. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Al-Hussein delivered an oral update to the Council, which was followed by a debate among council members. You can watch that here:


This debate was designed to mark the halfway point in the process, which will come to an end in March 2017. Yet unfortunately, it seems Sri Lanka is a very long way from that milestone. Our campaign, Keep the Promise, splits up the September 2015 resolution into 25 actionable points. Earlier in the year we found that Sri Lanka is only on track with respect to 3 of these points. We had hoped and expected that the update to the Council would be the occasion for a flurry of new announcements which would allow us to move a number of additional points into the “on track” category, but Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Samaweera’s statement was almost entirely lacking in substance meaning that very few changes have been made to our promise tracker.

Furthermore, we remain gravely concerned with respect to the implementation of 9 of the points, including some of the most important ones relating to enforced disappearances, the creation of a judicial mechanism for prosecuting war crimes, de-militarization, and ongoing torture. We have not been reassured with recent remarks by the President in which he continues to oppose the involvement of international judges in a justice process, nor by the extraordinary statement by Foreign Minister Samawareera that such statements were merely the President’s “personal opinion”.

Regardless of the lack of progress in such key areas, it appeared that the Sri Lankan Government firmly expected to be treated with kid gloves by an international community thought to be won over by the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry’s new, more collegiate attitude to international relations. They may have been surprised therefore by the sustained constructive criticism they received.

First, High Commissioner Zeid made a nuanced statement praising the Government of Sri Lanka for the manner in which it has engaged with UN processes, but offering firm criticism over the pace of reform, the failure to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), the continued culture of surveillance, and the lack of witness protection. He further stated:

“I remain convinced that international participation in the accountability mechanisms, as stipulated in the Human Rights Council’s resolution, would be a necessary guarantee for the credibility, independence and impartiality of the process in the eyes of victims given the magnitude and complexity of the alleged international crimes, which the OHCHR investigation found could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Thus making clear that President’s opposition to the involvement of international judges puts him at odds with the United Nations agreed process.

18 countries then spoke on the subject of Sri Lanka. This was a surprisingly large number considering that only one two-hour session was set aside in order to discuss not only Sri Lanka, but Myanmar and any other “Item 2” matter (i.e. the annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the reports of the Office of the High Commissioner and the Secretary-General).

Of the 18, only two countries were fully supportive of the Government of Sri Lanka’s approach – Pakistan and Russia. It must be noted that both are countries that have repeatedly and consistently placed on record the fact that they do not accept the validity of the manner in which the Human Rights Council currently operates, and that they believe that the Council should not intervene in what they see as purely domestic matters. Their remarks therefore had less to do with Sri Lanka than they did with these countries’ general approach to the Council.

It should also be noted that both countries usually speak on behalf of a “like minded group” of countries who are equally skeptical of the value of the Human Rights Council. This time they did not, and they were only speaking for themselves, meaning that fewer countries made statements unequivocally in support of the Sri Lankan Government than at any previous session.

The other 16 countries represented not only themselves, but also another 21 countries who associated themselves (as all EU countries did) with the statement by the Netherlands. They came from Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe, and Polynesia. Each country made a point of praising the Sri Lankan Government for its positive approach to proceedings, but each offered constructive criticism: primarily on the issues of ongoing violations (mentioned in four statements), the Government’s resistance to the involvement of international Judges (mentioned in seven), the pace of reform (mentioned in five), and the continued use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) (mentioned in five). Ghana and Macedonia, both countries with experience of ethnic conflict, offered particularly powerful critiques.

Those critiques, which we list in detail at the bottom of this post, will give the Sri Lankan Government pause for thought, and should hopefully cause them to recalibrate their estimations for how much progress the international community will need to see come the end of the reporting period in March.

However, the message would probably have been understood more readily by the Sri Lankan Government had the international community been more consistent in relaying it. For example, while the USA remains firmly committed to Sri Lanka accepting an international justice mechanism, it had passed up several opportunities to reinforce that message.Similarly, while the EU has stated its determination to ensure the full implementation of the UN resolution, it does not appear that they are using the current negotiations over “GSP+” preferential trade status for Sri Lanka to push that agenda.

Such equivocation – which may have been lulled the Sri Lankan government into a false sense that they are doing enough to satisfy the international community and doing enough to ensure the success of their transition to lasting peace – helps no one. It is essential that the international community now uses all the available channels and levers of influence at its disposal to ensure that that is well understood before this matter next comes before the UN Human Rights Council in March 2017.

The 16 substantive statements on Sri Lanka in brief:

  • The Netherlands, speaking on behalf of all EU countries, welcomed the visits by UN officials, the ratification of the Convention on Disappearances, and the creation of an Office of Missing Persons. They raised concerns about the inclusivity of participation, particularly from a gender perspective, and stressed the importance of international involvement in the justice mechanism, the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), and the need to normalise life in the north and east.
  • Germany welcomed the steps taken thus far and called for the repeal of the PTA.
  • Switzerland welcomed the steps taken thus far but criticised the absence of immediate action with respect to land, detainees, and witness protection, and called for a more transparent consultation process.
  • The UK welcomed progress, called for other bodies within the Sri Lankan state to show more respect to the National Human Rights Commission, and called for the release of land, the repeal of the PTA, and meaningful witness protection.
  • Macedonia made a strong statement welcoming progress but making a pointed critique of the pace of reform and the need for international involvement in the justice mechanism.
  • The Republic of Korea made a largely supportive statement but urged the Sri Lankan Government not to lose momentum in the coming months.
  • Ghana made a powerful intervention warmly congratulating Sri Lanka for its productive engagement, but pointing out that “nonetheless a lot more needs to be done”. They are concerned by issues regarding land and detainees, the continued use of the PTA, and witness protection laws. They note with concern allegations of arbitrary arrest, torture, sexual violence, and surveillance and harassment by the military. They believe the perpetrators must be brought to justice without fear or favour.
  • Norway stated that they felt progress had been steady but that nonetheless there is a need to keep momentum. They reiterated the need for Sri Lanka to permanently abolish the death penalty, and to accept international judges.
  • Japan welcomed the Governments efforts but reiterated the need for international support. They asked for deeper involvement of the Sri Lankan people in consultation.
  • The USA called on the Sri Lankan Government to make tangible steps towards fulfilling its commitments.
  • Australia called on the Sri Lankan Government to maintain momentum, particularly when it came to witness protection and consultation.
  • Denmark praised the leadership shown by the Sri Lankan Government and urged it to show further leadership by including international judges as part of the process.
  • Canada welcomed Sri Lanka’s approach but said that much more needed to be done, particularly when it came to the credibility of an accountability process, which must involve international judges.
  • New Zealand called for the resolution to be implemented in full.
  • Estonia made a fairly critical statement, expressing concern about the current human rights situation in Sri Lanka, ongoing violations, and the continued use of the PTA. They also called on the Sri Lankan Government to involve international judges in their mechanism and to ratify the statute of the International Criminal Court.
  • Ireland welcomed progress thus far and noted that such processes can take time. However they urged the Sri Lankan Government to use the momentum they have generated to fully implement the resolution including by appointing international judges to the mechanism. They urged the repeal of the PTA, and a speedy establishment of a justice mechanism.