By Sugeeswara Senadhira
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet delivered her oral update on Sri Lanka on September 13 at the 46 Session of the UNHRC in Geneva, which went beyond the council’s mandate in commenting on a member country that has not gone unnoticed by at least 15 member countries that have come out in support of Sri Lanka.
The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) chief commented on many internal governance issues and made a vain attempt to link them to the so-called human rights violations. She made comments such as that the Emergency Regulations enforced in Sri Lanka in recent times with the stated objective of ensuring food security and price controls, are very broad and expressed apprehension that they may expand the further role of the military in civilian functions. She said her office would monitor the situation.
She referred to the Easter Sunday terror attacks (of 2019) and questioned as to why the prosecution of culprits had not commenced. She was misinformed on that issue as the cases were already filed and the three-member tribunal has already announced the dates for trial. This was done within just two years of the dastardly terrorist attacks.
It should be noted that the UNHRC Chief had not made any comment when there was a long delay in prosecuting the terrorists who killed 130 civilians in Paris in 2015. The cases were filed by the French Police last week, after six years of investigations. The only surviving member of the group suspected of being behind the 2015 Paris attacks says he and his fellow accused are “being treated like dogs.”
Salah Abdeslam and 19 other defendants are being tried in Paris over the attacks which left 130 dead. It is a fact that such ruthless terrorists cannot be treated as human beings, but the UNHRC attempts to defend rights of terror suspects in countries like Sri Lanka while keeping mum on the actions of affluent Western countries makes her office vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy.
Addressing the media at the Presidential Media Centre here on September 16, Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage said that the Colombo High Court Trial-at-Bar has been fixed for October 4, to hear the cases filed against 26 accused on a daily basis for a speedy trial in connection with the Easter Sunday terror attacks.
The Trial-at-Bar bench comprising High Court Judges Damith Thotawatta (President), Amal Ranaraja and Navaratne Marasinghe has issued summons on the accused through the Prisons authorities to appear before Court on October 4. Earlier, the Attorney General had filed indictments against former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and former Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundara in connection with their criminal negligence and failure to prevent the Easter Sunday terror attacks.
Replying to the accusations made by the UNHRC Chief, Foreign Secretary Colombage rejected them and clarified the actual position. He thanked the UNHRC Chief for acknowledging certain steps taken by Sri Lanka including the work carried on for reparation to victims, progress on issues concerning missing persons, release of 16 LTTE prisoners and the proposed amendments to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). However, he pointed out that international organizations were biased against some countries as the top officials of such organizations have to appease the powerful and affluent nations that fund them.
Prof. Colombage said that only four Western countries spoke against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC this time, while as many as 15 countries urged the international community to allow Sri Lanka to resolve its own internal issues without external interventions. Furthermore, Azerbaijan, representing 23 non-aligned countries, Egypt, representing five nations and Cameroon, representing 13 African countries spoke in support of Sri Lanka. Colombage said he is pleased with the support Sri Lanka has received and added that Sri Lanka is absolutely committed to finding solutions under local mechanisms to all the residual issues, not because of outside pressures, but because we owe it to our people.
UNHRC Chief Bachelet, in her submission expressed fears that the military may expand its role in civilian functions. But, earlier Government Spokesman and Information Minister Dulles Alahapperuma has exlained that, “there is no militarization (but) what the Government did was to amend just two clauses in the Emergency Regulations to ensure food security”. Alahapperuma also added that the defence forces had successfully handled the vaccination programme of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government’s emergency action is aimed at preventing hoarding of essential items. The Government has appointed a Commissioner General of Essential Services, who will have the power to seize food stocks held by traders and retailers and regulate their prices. The military will oversee the action which gives power to officials to ensure that essential items, including rice and sugar, are sold at Government-guaranteed prices or prices based on import costs at Customs and prevent hiding of stocks.
Bachelet made a strange conclusion on demonstrations. “Several peaceful protests and commemorations have been met with excessive use of force and the arrest or detention of demonstrators in quarantine centres,” she claimed.
Apparently, her office, the OHCHR has failed in providing her with correct information. The Government has not even used water jets or teargas against protesters during the last two years. Instead, the protest leaders were called for talks on their demands or grievances. “The new regulations on civil society groups are being drafted, and it is widely feared that they will further tighten restrictions on fundamental freedoms. I urge that the draft be made public to allow the broadest possible discussion,” she has said.
Foreign Secretary Colombage pointed out that Sri Lanka could not accept any external initiatives as the domestic mechanisms were sufficient to deal with all the issues. Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, in his virtual intervention, pointed out, any external initiatives “will polarise our society”.
“The Council must adhere to its founding principles. External initiatives embarked upon without the cooperation of the country concerned cannot achieve their stated goals, and will be subject to politicisation,” he said.
While rejecting unacceptable conditions, Sri Lanka however assured its strong and continued cooperation with this Council and the United Nations mandated human rights system, in keeping with the Constitution and the international obligations voluntarily undertaken.
The Government has taken many steps for reconciliation and ethnic harmony. In dealing with post-conflict recovery from the perspective of healing, recently, 16 LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) cadres convicted of serious terrorist crimes were granted Presidential pardons. The success of post-conflict demining, reconstruction and resettlement programmes has contributed immensely to national reconciliation. The Sri Lankan army has worked with Tamil civilians in many of thhese projects.
Despite the daily challenges of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) continues its eight-point action plan. The National Human Rights Commission is carrying on its mandate. A Steering Committee on SDG 16 is working towards enhancing peace, justice and strong institutions.
In addition, a Commission of Inquiry headed by a sitting judge of the Supreme Court was established to address issues on accountability and missing persons and to revisit recommendations by previous commissions. The COI submitted its interim report to the President and the final report will be submitted within the next six months.
“We are maintaining a vigorous engagement with civil society to obtain their insights and to harness their support in achieving reconciliation and development,” Prof Peiris said, adding, “we are open in acknowledging our challenges and as a responsible and democratic Government, we are committed to achieving tangible progress on the entire range of issues relating to accountability, reconciliation, human rights, peace and sustainable development.”