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Sri Lanka’s key institutions corroded and corrupted by conflict

Human Rights
Sri Lanka

UN Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein addressing the press. by UN Colombo

UN rights chief asks the country to address needs of victims ‘on all sides’, Lasanda Kurukulasuriya reports.

Concluding a four day visit to Sri Lanka on 9 February the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said the country has ‘come a long way in the past year’ but that its key institutions had been ‘seriously corroded and corrupted’ during three decades of conflict.

‘Virtually everyone agrees that there has been progress, although opinions differ markedly about the extent of that progress,’ he told a press conference in Colombo after having visited the war-affected North and East. In addition to political leaders and civil society representatives he said he met Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil victims of the war. ‘The element of fear has considerably diminished, at least in Colombo and the South, in the North and East, it has mutated but, sadly, still exists.’

‘When you visit Colombo you see a bustling city, a mass of construction sites, clean streets, and flourishing businesses. You see a thriving tourist industry. When you visit the North and the East, you see, in patches at least, damaged and depressed areas, poverty and continued displacement.’

As confidence-building measures that could be taken quickly Al Hussein said the military needed to accelerate the return of land taken over during the conflict to its rightful owners and further reduce its presence in the North and East. He called for quickening the process of either charging or releasing 292 security-related detainees the government says remain in prison.

This was the second visit to the country by a UN human rights chief since Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009 with the military defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. On 1 October last year the Human Rights Council adopted a US-sponsored resolution which endorsed the findings of a report by the Office of the High Commissioner and called for an investigation into alleged human rights violations that may amount to war crimes. The pro-Western government’s decision to co-sponsor the resolution has been criticized by many including coalition partners, largely on account of its call for participation by foreign judges, prosecutors, defence lawyers and investigators in the proposed accountability mechanism.

Photo by Lasanda Kurukulasuriya.

Chief monks of the Buddhist clergy whom Al Hussein visited told him that there was no need for foreign participation. In a recent BBC interview President Maithripala Sirisena said he would not allow it. ‘We have more than enough specialists, experts and knowledgeable people in our country to solve our internal issues,’ he told the BBC. But leader of the Tamil National Alliance R Sambandan, who is also the leader of the opposition, has reportedly called for the ‘full implementation’ of the HRC resolution.

Responding to journalists’ questions, the High Commissioner said ‘in the end it is the sovereign right of Sri Lanka to make determinations in respect of its future.’ While the HRC can make recommendations in respect of countries its resolutions are not enforceable. ‘The HRC has directed its spotlight in the past, almost always, on countries identified selectively for political reasons,’ Palitha Kohona, a former Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN said. ‘The ability to muster a majority in the HRC appears to have been the defining criterion for focusing the HRC spotlight on a country rather than an objective consideration of the facts or the application of the same yardstick to similar cases’ he wrote shortly after the resolution was adopted.

Al Hussein said ‘It was our belief when we put the report together that this idea of a hybrid court was merited, and the Human Rights Council of course adopted the language that points in that direction.’

‘The suggestion of having an impartial and independent court is fundamental because it must address the needs of victims on all sides.’

President Sirisena’s government elected last year has engaged more closely with the UN and sought to befriend Western powers, in contrast with the Rajapaksa regime.

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