Post-War Reconciliation Process: Human Rights violation
By Dr. S.W. Premaratne
At each session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), in Geneva, at which the Post-War Reconciliation Process in Sri Lanka was considered, special attention was drawn to the issue of alleged violation of human rights, and humanitarian law, during the last stage of the war, and also the need for taking remedial steps for improving the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. In this article, attention of the reader is drawn to the inconsistency, and contradictory nature of the policy, adopted by successive governments, in Sri Lanka, in response to the role played by the United Nations, and the adverse effect of the failure on the part of the Sri Lankan government to be guided by a consistent and diplomatically pragmatic policy.
Joint Statement of the UNSG and the President of Sri Lanka in 2009
Immediately after the conclusion of the war, in May 2009, the United Nations Secretary General (UNSG), Ban Ki-moon, paid a visit to Sri Lanka and, after a discussion with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a joint statement was issued on May 23, 2009. According to the Joint Statement, Sri Lanka agreed to attend to the immediate needs of the people, affected by the war, and to initiate a reconciliation process, with the objective of achieving durable peace and economic development, for the benefit of all sections of the Sri Lankan population. The President also gave an assurance, to the UNSG, to attend to the matters that need the most urgent attention, such as the re-settlement of Internationally Displaced Persons (IDP), reconstruction of damaged infrastructure, rehabilitation and reintegration of former child soldiers, and ex-combatants, to civilian life. Of course, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government did not hesitate to attend to most of the above-mentioned immediate needs of the war-affected people, in the North-East.
In the joint statement of the UNSG and the President of Sri Lanka, the most significant part was the expression of the Sri Lankan government’s commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights, in keeping with the international human rights standards, and Sri Lanka’s international obligations. It is also very significant that the UNSG underlined the importance of an accountability process for addressing the violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. According to the joint statement, the President agreed to the need for establishing a mechanism for holding an independent investigation into the allegations of serious violations of human rights, and humanitarian law, both by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces, committed during the last stage of the war. In expression of Sri Lanka’s strong commitment to fulfill the obligations, in respect of promoting human rights, the Sri Lankan government made a proposal, entitled “assistance to Sri Lanka in the promotion and protection of human rights,” to the UNHRC, on May 27, 2009.
The Sri Lankan government, thereafter, proceeded to appoint the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The LLRC has made a comprehensive analysis of the causes of the conflict and the remedial steps that should be taken by the government for restoration of durable peace and reconciliation. Regarding the issue of violation of human rights, the following recommendations were made by the LLRC:
(i) Launching a full investigation into incidents of disappearance of persons, after surrender to official custody, and, where necessary, instituting prosecutions. According to the LLRC recommendations, instituting prosecutions against the offenders is an imperative, also for the purpose of clearing the good name of the Sri Lankan Army “who have, by and large, conducted themselves in an exemplary manner, in the surrender process”.
(ii) To investigate the specific instances, referred to in the Report, and any reported cases of deliberate attacks on civilians. If the investigations disclose the commission of any offences, appropriate legal action should be taken to prosecute/punish the offenders.
(iii) Regarding the controversial “Channel 4 Video” the LLRC recommended an independent investigation to find out the truth, or otherwise, of the video footage. If such investigation reveals the commission of any offences, it is necessary to prosecute such offenders.
(iv) The Commission also recommended the investigation of alleged disappearances and provide material to the Attorney General to institute criminal proceedings.
(v) The LLRC also brought the attention of the government to instances of persons being detained in custody for a long period of time, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Although the government, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, initially indicated its willingness to fulfil the commitments undertaken, with respect to the violation of human rights, and humanitarian law, by the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE, on the occasion of issuing the joint statement with the Secretary General, it became clear, subsequently, that the political leaders in power, led by President Rajapaksa, did not have the political will to act. They were guided by the mindset that by defeating the LTTE, who were generally recognized, at that stage, as a terrorist movement, the Sri Lankan armed forces had been able to unite the country and restore peace after making innumerable sacrifices and, therefore, there was no need for a reconciliation process.
The sponsors of the Resolution 19/2, adopted before the UNHRC, in Geneva, in 2012, required the Sri Lankan government to implement the recommendations of the LLRC. The need for holding an investigation into the allegations of serious violations of human rights, and humanitarian law, during the last stage of the Eelam War IV, was emphasised in the UNHRC Resolutions, adopted in 2012, and the subsequent resolutions, adopted in 2013 and 2014.
Regarding the involvement of the international community, as members of the United Nations and the UNHRC, in a reconciliation process, the attitude of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government was that Sri Lanka being a sovereign state, the other countries, or even the UN, had no right to interfere with or make any recommendations, regarding the settlement of domestic issues of Sri Lanka. The representatives of the Sri Lankan government, who participated in the UNHRC sessions, argued that the officials of the UN and the UNHRC, interfering in the domestic issues of Sri Lanka, amounts to violation of sovereignty of this country. Therefore, such interventions are illegal and as such Sri Lanka was not bound to implement these recommendations of the UNHRC. Regarding the allegation of serious violations of human rights, the response of the Sri Lankan government was that Eelam War IV was a humanitarian operation, conducted strictly in adherence to human rights law, and humanitarian law, and in the course of the military operations, violations of human rights were committed, only by the LTTE.
Regime change in 2015
A change of attitude, towards the involvement of the international community, could be observed during the Yahapalana administration, led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (2015-2019).
The representatives of the Sri Lankan government, at the UNHRC sessions, in Geneva, co-sponsored the Resolution 30/1, which required the Sri Lankan government to hold a credible investigation, by a hybrid tribunal, consisting of both local and foreign judges, to investigate alleged violation of human rights, and humanitarian law, by the members of the armed forces, and the LTTE, during the last stage of the war.
It can be stated that the Sri Lankan government, at that stage, adopted a pragmatic approach by co-sponsoring the resolution. At that stage, the Sri Lankan government felt the state of insolation from the international community, including India, that supported the sponsors of the Resolution against Sri Lanka. The Yahapalana government perceived serious negative consequences if the Sri Lankan government continued to oppose the UNHRC resolutions.
The Yahapalana government also took several constructive steps that contributed towards the creation of a conducive environment for meaningful reconciliation. Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, Mangala Munasinghe, who participated in the UNHRC sessions, during which the Resolution 30/1 was co-sponsored, informed the UNHRC that the government would initiate a domestic mechanism, after consulting all parties who have a stake in an effective reconciliation process. The Yahapalana government was able to establish domestic mechanisms, such as the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), and the Office for Reparations. These institutions were able to function effectively, at the initial stage. Signing of the International Convention, on the protection of all persons from enforced disappearance, on May 25, 2016, and drafting a Bill for the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, are some of the progressive steps taken by the Yahapalana government.
Recapture of Political Power by Rajapaksa brothers
The Presidential election, held in November, 2019 and the General elections, in August 2020, brought back to power same political leaders who ruled the country, prior to 2015. This change of government resulted in the reversal of the Sri Lankan government’s policy towards involvement of the UN in the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. The government, led by the Rajapaksa brothers, opposed the Resolutions brought before the UNHRC, in Geneva, against Sri Lanka and adopted the same confrontationist approach towards the UN’s involvement in the reconciliation process. Co-sponsoring the Resolution 30/1 and co-operating with the UNHRC, by the Yahapalana government, was projected to the Sri Lanka electorate, during the election propaganda campaigns, as an unpardonable betrayal of the armed forces, and the Sri Lankan nation, by the Yahapalana government.
The Resolution, titled “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights,” was adopted by the UNHRC, in Geneva, on March 23, 2021, during the 46th Sessions. By this resolution, a mandate was given to the High Commissioner for Human Rights for initiating a fresh inquiry, outside Sri Lanka, regarding the accountability issues. In this resolution, there is a provision according to which the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is authorized to take on the role of collecting evidence to be used in such prosecutions in the future.
Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, making a statement to Parliament of Sri Lanka, subsequent to the adoption of the Resolution before the UNHRC, stated that by the adoption of this resolution, the UN sought to interfere in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of Sri Lanka. He further stated that there was no moral right to interfere into affairs of a sovereign country in this manner. The Minister said that “Sri Lanka categorically rejects this unprecedented proposal in the Resolution”.
48th, 49th and 50th Sessions of the UNHRC
In the reports submitted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelot, at the 48th, 49th and 50th Sessions of the UNHRC, she brought the attention of the Sri Lankan government to the concerns of the UNHRC, regarding inadequate progress in the human rights situation, and also the inadequate action taken regarding the investigation of alleged human rights violations, during the last stage of the war.
Her reports also dealt with the various aspects of human rights violations that occurred in Sri Lanka, under the Rajapaksa administration. She made special reference to the increasing militarization of the civil functions of the government, intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders, and journalists, and members of civil rights organizations, which criticized government policies, and detention of individuals, for long periods of time, without trial, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
In the report submitted at the 49th sessions, the High Commissioner stated that the OHCHR had already established a “Sri Lanka Accountability Project” and even allocated funds for it. In the report submitted at the 50th Sessions also she referred to this “Accountability Project” outside Sri Lanka, which may have serious consequences a far as Sri Lanka’s relations with leading democratic countries are concerned, especially at a time Sri Lanka is grappling with a veryserious economic crises.
Anti-government protests in Sri Lanka
Only a few hours after President Ranil Wickremesinghe assuming duties of his office, the armed commandos of the Police and troops of the security forces were used to disperse the peaceful, unarmed protesters from the Presidential Secretariat area of the Galle Face, in the early hours of 22nd July. Attention of the international community has been drawn to the undemocratic step of imposing a State of Emergency, and initiating an operation for arresting the protesters who played a leading role in the protest campaign. A message from the US and the Sri Lanka core-group of the UNHRC stated: “The Human Rights Council Sri Lanka Core-Group is dismayed at the violation which took place at Galle Face. We call for full respect for human rights and rule of law”.
Even prior to this unlawful act of attacking the protesters, on July 22, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, in his report to the UNHRC, at the 50th Session, held in June 2022, had already warned that Sri Lanka police frequently appear to respond to protests by arresting their participants, in violation of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly”.
The fact that the core-group, and their supporting members of the UNHRC, are determined to go ahead with a project, outside Sri Lanka, for investigating the allegations of serious violations of human rights, and humanitarian law, during the last stage of the war, and continued vigilance of the democratic members of the UNHRC, regarding the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka, after the conclusion of the war, has caused irreparable injury to Sri Lanka’s friendly relations with these countries. There is no doubt that the Sri Lankan government is now concerned about the highly damaging consequences of the failure to adopt a consistent and diplomatically pragmatic policy in respect of the role assumed by the UN to ensure that Sri Lanka would initiate and proceed with a credible and transparent reconciliation process after the conclusion of the war.