Limelight again on Sri Lanka in UNHRC
Sri Lanka is once again under stress as
the 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) commences in Geneva in
March 2017, when the Human Rights Commissioner will present his report on Sri
Lanka’s follow up actions to meet the requirements of the UNHRC resolution of
October 2015. Sri Lanka had agreed to fulfill
within two years the requirements of accountability on alleged war crimes and human
rights abuses, creating institutions for transitional justice and carry out
security sector reforms.
Sri Lanka is expected to seek extension
of time as it has not been able to complete action on some of the key
requirements, it. The TNA leader P Sampanthan had expressed unhappiness with
the government performance on the subject in parliament, but is unlikely to
oppose the government move.
Pro-LTTE sections of the Tamil Diaspora
have been trying to raise international support to oppose giving any extension
of time to Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. However, this demand is unlikely to find
much traction among international civil society organizations. The Human Rights
Watch (HRW), which had been highly critical of Sri Lanka’s human rights record
during President Rajapaksa’s rule, has commended the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe
government for the actions it had taken including ending the culture of
surveillance, lifting media restrictions and reviewing all cases of those
detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and amending the
constitution to ensure free functioning of national institutions.
However, HRW Asia Director Brad Adams
in a statement has highlighted Sri Lanka’s failure in security sector reforms
as required by the October 2015 resolution. He has drawn attention to a recent
report of the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and inhuman treatment which had
brought the focus on Sri Lanka’s ongoing “culture of torture” and failure
to abolish the draconian PTA, though the
country’s war with LTTE ended in 2009.
He said police have continued to arrest and detain people arbitrarily. In his
view, Sri Lanka leaders appeared “to be backtracking on key human rights issues
including reforming the police” and it was crucial the HRC considered “closely”
whether Sri Lanka made progress in commitments on transitional justice
including security reforms. The UN body will also be considering the report of
the Special Rapporteur on minority issues on Sri Lanka.
As the HRW Asia director has pointed
out, Sri Lanka had been dragging its feet on core issues of accountability like
the creation of various institutions for transitional justice, particularly the
mechanism for war crimes which has been hanging fire over the issue of
participation of foreign judges. The legislation on the creation of the Office
of Missing Persons was passed in August 2016 but it is yet to fulfill its
obligations to those affected.
Nothing substantial has happened on a
truth commission and reparations issues. President Maithripala Sirisena has
been cautious in handling the touchy aspects of war crimes issue to fend off
former president Rajapaksa who continues to whip up rightwing Sinhala
sentiments to help his political comeback. As a result, in spite of its
professed good intent, the government has made only slow progress. These issues
are likely to figure at the UNHRC session during the discussion on the Human
Rights Commissioner’s report.
Sri Lanka foreign affairs minister
Mangala Samaraweera in his address to the UNHRC session is likely to explain
the reconciliation efforts undertaken by the government so far and appeal for
more time to fulfill its commitments made to the Council in 2015. Sri Lanka’s
request is likely to be favourably considered as the UN Secretary General Antonio
Guteras and the U.S., China, Japan, Australia etc have appreciated Sri Lanka’s
reconciliation efforts. Even the UK,
unlike in the past when it had been critical of the reconciliation efforts, is
likely to support Sri Lanka after highlighting the unfulfilled commitments.
India’s preoccupation with Sri Lanka
under the new dispensation now relates to bonding with the island neighbour on
two vital aspects – finalising the economic and technology cooperation
agreement (ETCA) still in limbo and firming up closer defence and security
cooperation. China had been laying siege on Indian space in Sri Lanka on both
the issues. So India’s interest in Sri Lanka Tamils probably relates to
rehabilitation efforts and devolution and equity for Tamils in the new
constitution being finalised.
With the constitutional polemics
figuring prominently, it is not surprising the issue came up when Indian
foreign secretary S Jaishankar met with the TNA leaders. He is reported to have
told them he would take up the issue with the President and Prime Minister.
However, it was probably a moment of truth for a section of the TNA agitating
for the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces when he told them that
India would not press Sri Lanka on the issue. He advised them to use the
opportunities offered with the change of regime to secure the rights of Tamils.
Given this backdrop, India is likely to support Sri Lanka’s request for
extension of time as the major Tamil Nadu regional parties with their internal
preoccupations have been muted on the subject.
Follow up on LTTE plot to kill Tamil MP
The arrest of five rehabilitated former
LTTE cadres reported in January 2017 for allegedly plotting to assassinate MA
Sumanthiran, moderate Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Member of Parliament, and
recovery of claymore mines and ganja from their homes had triggered a lot of
speculations about possible revival of the Tamil tigers’ activity in the island
nation. However, police have preferred
to charge them only for possession of narcotics (ganja) and explosives and not
under the PTA, when they were produced in the court.
There are three possible explanations
for this: lack of clinching evidence except for uncorroborated or shaky
confessional statement; government not wanting to apply the PTA particularly as
the UNHRC is scheduled to meet in Geneva in March 2017; or as columnist DBS
Jeyaraj states, the government was not wanting to apply the PTA till it is
revised to be less draconian (as required by the 2005 resolution). Probably,
all three reasons are valid.
However, till the LTTE overseas
elements holed up among the Tamil Diaspora community continue to stoke the
embers of LTTE’s Eelam struggle in Sri Lanka, the government has no other
option but to keep a wary eye on any suspicious separatist activity.
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