The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a historic resolution over allegations of ongoing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. But as Callum Macrae reports, it has received mixed reactions.
Six and a half years ago the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted to congratulate the government of Sri Lanka for its commitment to human rights.
It was arguably the most shameful moment in the Council’s short history.
The government they were praising had allegedly just massacred tens of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians, after encouraging them to gather in government designated “No Fire Zones” at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009.
Those killings were followed by a series of filmed incidents in which bound, naked prisoners were executed and women prisoners systematically violated and murdered by government forces, captured in a series of videos verified by the UN and human rights groups, where Sri Lankan soldiers were apparently operating in a climate of impunity.
Today, the Human Rights council had the chance to do something significant about that but it fudged it with a tortuously negotiated “consensus” resolution, supported by Sri Lanka.
Passed without opposition, the resolution acknowledged that terrible crimes were committed and called for a process of truth, justice and reconciliation. But it fell short of endorsing a clear call by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, for the creation of a special hybrid court, with international judges and prosecutors at its heart, to try the offences.
For the predominantly Tamil victims and survivors of the North and East of Sri Lanka, who had invested so much hope in the Council’s deliberations, the resolution, while progress of a sort, is still a disappointment.
Hopes had been raised by the publication two weeks ago of the long-awaited report of the UNHRC investigation into the war crimes by both sides and ongoing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. It was a devastating document: a ringing endorsement of the evidence presented by Channel 4 and others and a confirmation of the claims of the survivors.
But perhaps even more significant were the unequivocal recommendations of the High Commissioner. He specifically rejected the idea of a purely domestic Sri Lankan court favoured by both the previous government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and that of his replacement Maithripala Sirisena. Such a court, he said: “will have no chance of overcoming widespread and justifiable suspicions fuelled by decades of violations, malpractice and broken promises”.
Then yesterday, in an uncompromising video address to the council, he spelled out the alternative, calling for the establishment of “an ad hoc hybrid special court, integrating international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators, mandated to try… war crimes and crimes against humanity”
Today the council passed a resolution which fell far short of that, effectively endorsing the Sri Lankan government’s plan to set up “a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism” whilst stressing that the importance they attach to the participation of “Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers, and authorized prosecutors and investigators”.
The core UNHRC group which proposed the resolution, including the US and UK governments, will be anxious to point out that it does contain some important markers and targets- particularly on the consultation and involvement of the victims in the design of the process, progress on the return to the Tamils of land seized by security forces, and effective witness protection.
But since the Sri Lankan government has been promising those things pretty well since its election with precious few signs of any significant progress on the ground, the victims will regard these assurances with a pretty jaundiced eye.
A recent high-profile meeting between senior army commanders and top government figures including the President and the Prime Minister only served to increase Tamil suspicion of the government’s real motives. The meetings were described by the Sri Lankan media as discussions about “an acceptable format for the proposed domestic mechanism to address accountability issues.”
Tamil victims asked (with some justification) why the government appeared to put consulting some of the key accused on what kind of trial they would like before they consulted the victims about what kind of process might inspire their confidence.
“A recent high-profile meeting between senior army commanders and top government figures only served to increase Tamil suspicion of the government’s motives”
A joint statement on the draft UNHRC resolution issued three days ago by a wide range of Tamil civil society groups and political parties – including three of four key parties which make up the main political alliance in the North and East, the Tamil National Alliance, was highly critical. They dismissed “the Sri Lankan Government appointing foreign judges to its own judicial mechanism” as seeking to “provide the appearance of credibility to a domestic process”.
They added that they “deeply regret that references to demilitarization of the North-East and an increased role for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) which were included in the initial draft of the resolution have been removed.”
Most observers agree that international scrutiny and involvement will be central to what happens next. The resolution merely calls for an oral report in June 2016 and a written report in March 2017. But victims groups and human rights organisations will expect to see real and measurable progress -particularly on relatively straightforward issues like the repeal of the Island’s Draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act- within weeks.
If these groups don’t see such progress the key sponsors of the resolutions are certain to come under real pressure to ramp up the pressure on Sri Lanka.
And one issue likely to become an immediate focus of campaigning will be for the establishment of properly staffed and adequately funded regional office of the OHCHR in the Jaffna or Kilinochchi areas of the north.
That would be seen by victims and survivors in the area as a concrete symbol of the international communities commitment to see this through. And the Sri Lankan government’s willingness to support and facilitate such an office would be seen as a real test of their proclaimed commitment to making this process work.
Callum Macrae is the director of No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka
Follow him on twitter @Callum_Macrae