UN slams Sri Lanka’s misuse of anti-terrorism bill

The UN’s deputy human rights chief on Wednesday urged the international community to use accepted principles of universal and extraterritorial jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators of human rights violation in Sri Lanka, as long as the accountability deficit remains in the island nation.

She also called on them to support to the relevant accountability processes in third states as well as the fair application of targeted sanctions against credibly alleged perpetrators of rights violations in Sri Lanka.

Presenting the oral update on Sri Lanka during the 53rd Regular Session of UN Human Rights Council, the UN’s Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif highlights some key developments and trends from the OHCHR’s close monitoring of the situation in Sri Lanka ahead of the full written update that will be presented to the council at its 54th session.

She stated that the economic crisis continues to have a severe impact on the rights and wellbeing of many Sri Lankans. “Discussion with creditors are underway and although the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved a financial support package, which is an important first step, it is crucial to ensure that the burden of potential reforms does not further compound inequalities.”

She stated that robust safety nets and social protection measures are needed to shelter the most vulnerable from the negative spillovers of economic restructuring.

The Deputy High Commissioner said it is also vital to address the underlying factors of the crisis including corruption, which was a loud and essential demand of the protests that took place last year. The protest movement loudly expressed society’s aspirations for better governance and an inclusive vision for and with Sri Lanka, she noted.

Al-Nashif stated that 12 months on, the full potential for the historic transformation that would address long-standing challenges has yet to be realized in the island nation. “Our office urges the government and political parties in Sri Lanka to use this opportunity for democratic renewal, for deeper institutional reforms and advance accountability and reconciliation as well as the promotion and the protection of human rights.”

This would be particularly appropriate in a year that marks the 75th anniversary of both Sri Lanka’s independence and the universal declaration of human rights, she pointed out.

“We encourage the dialogue that the President has initiated with Tamil political parties and welcome his promise to stop land acquisition for archeological, forestry or security purposes, an increasing source of local conflict an increasing source of local conflict and tension.”

She noted that plans for more inclusive memorialization and other forms of dealing with the past have been announced and that the Supreme Court has issued an important order for compensation to be paid to the victims of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks.

“However, these intentions need to materialize into new laws, policies and practices that will make good on these promises and bring about tangible change,” she emphasized.

Similarly anticipated is the Constitutional Council’s new appointments to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, an important test of the independence and effectiveness of this critical national institution, Al-Nashif said.

She said the announcement of plans for a Truth Commission or similar reconciliation mechanisms requires attention. “Sri Lanka has witnessed too many ad hoc commissions in the past, that failed to ensure accountability. The Office of Missing Persons has not achieved the results that provide satisfaction to victims.”

“What is needed is a coherent plan that connects the different elements of truth, redress, memorialization, accountability and creates the right enabling environment for a successful and sustainable transitional justice process,” the deputy UN rights chief said in the oral update.

Accountability remains the fundamental gap in attempts to deal with the past and as long as impunity prevails, Sri Lanka will achieve neither genuine reconciliation nor sustainable peace, she warned.

“I am pleased to report that the project team established in our office to advance accountability has continued to make progress pursuant to Resolution 51/1.”

“It is in the process of providing concreate support to several jurisdictions who have ongoing criminal justice investigations. It is conducting proactive investigations work on key cases and collecting, consolidating and analyzing information and evidence from a variety of UN and other sources, which is preserved in a repository source to be used for future accountability initiatives.”

She said victims remain at the heart of this work, including through our active engagement with victim organizations and civil society more broadly.

Fundamentally it is and remains the responsibility of Sri Lankan authorities to directly acknowledge past violations and undertake credible investigations and prosecutions alongside other accountability measures, the Deputy High Commissioner said stressed.

“However, as long as this accountability deficit remains the international community can and should play complimentary roles,” she said.

“Means to do so include use of accepted principles of universal and extra territorial jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators and support to the relevant accountability processes in third states as well as the fair application of targeted sanctions against credibly alleged perpetrators.”

“The past months have unfortunately witnessed an old reflex of using draconian laws to curtail opposition and control civic space. With a heavy-handed approach to protests far too often including the arrest of protest leaders and forceful crowd control measures as well as the persistent use of the military in police functions.”

“Recent arrests made over statements made during comedy performances and of Members of Parliament engaged in protests exemplify this concern,” Al-Nashif said.

In March of this year, the Human Rights Committee expressed deep concern about the misuse of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act against journalists, human rights defenders and other civil society actors, she further said.

“The government has committed to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with legislation that adheres to international standards, but the new Anti-Terrorism Bill that was gazetted in March contains sweeping provisions that will limit freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and even labour rights.”

Following strong pushback from civil society, the draft bill has now been recalled for additional consultations, she pointed out.

The UN’s Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights encouraged the government to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and in the meantime to implement fully a strict moratorium on its use considering that the ordinary criminal code and other auxiliary laws already provide adequate tools for law enforcement.

“The office stands ready to provide support to the government and people of Sri Lanka in order to advance reconciliation and accountability and human rights for all,” she said in conclusion.



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