By P. K. Balachandran
COLOMBO – In its observations on the report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) communicated to the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the Sri Lankan government has drawn attention to the progress made in addressing issues related to human rights and ethnic reconciliation and emphatically refuted the charges and contentions in the OHCHR’s report.
In the point-by-point refutation, the government’s overall thrust is that the OHCHR’s contentions are baseless, biased and unsubstantiated and that some comments and prescriptions amount to violation of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and meddling in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, which is outside the UNHRC’s mandate.
The government’s 30-page reply published in full by www.counterpoint.lk says the OHCHR should have focused on “deliverable” reconciliation mechanisms rather than trying to put in place mechanisms which do not have popular sanction or are constitutionally barred.
Refuting the repeated contention that Sri Lanka has been hoodwinking the UNHRC, the government points out the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), headed by a former Supreme Court judge, is functioning under judicial oversight. Noting that the government is waiting for the OMP to submit its financial requirements, it points out that the Office of Reparations, (OR), which has been allotted Rs 910 million, has so far received 16,275 applications of which 4358 have been processed and Rs 142 million disbursed as reparations, and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) had been allotted Rs 290 million.
As regards lands taken by the military during the war, it notes 82.26% of State lands and 92.22% of Private lands were returned to their civilian owners by end December 2019. It also notes that when the war ended 1311 sq.km in the Northern and Eastern Provinces were bristling with land mines and that 98.7% of the affected area has now been cleared.
Reference the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), it says the government’s bid to replace it failed because of opposition in Parliament and religious leaders, but assured the government is intent on ‘revisiting’ the PTA.
Alluding to the UNHRC’s requirement for an international or domestic judicial mechanism to investigate war crimes charges, the government says the OHCHR should “focus on deliverable measures for reconciliation in line with the interests of Sri Lanka and its people instead of imposing unfeasible commitments for the sake of exemplifying theoretical notions of transitional justice.” The co-sponsorship of an earlier resolution by an erstwhile Sri Lankan government was “constitutionally undeliverable” and had no “public endorsement,” the government points out, justifying it’s withdrawal from the co-sponsored resolution.
The government says it has been unfailingly complying with requirements of the UN system on human rights issues noting that the US sub-committee on torture visited Sri Lanka in 2019, and as in the case of other such investigating UN teams, it was given full access. The chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka had told an earlier UN team that the commission had not received any information on abduction, unlawful detection or sexual violence. The OHCHR had alleged that the “National Investigation Bureau” is trailing people but the government points that such a bureau ceased to exist in 2009 following the end of the war.
On the charge that International and Domestic NGOs are being harassed, the government says: “In the backdrop of past experience where NGOs had been abetting terrorism in this country, it is essential that the government initiates a mechanism to ensure their accountability and transparency, as such organization could engage in terrorist financing and money laundering causing a threat to national security.”
In the context of the Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019) bombings, “there is suspicion and fear that NGOs were engaged in those activities with funds received from overseas through formal and informal systems,” the report says, adding that recently there were attempts to assassinate Tamil MPs from the Northern and Eastern Provinces. “The government is responsible for ensuring the security of these VIPs”.
Referring to the charge of the militarization of the administration under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the government says appointing any person to any office is the prerogative of the government and is, at any rate, outside the mandate of the OHCHR. The appointments made had been done on the basis of qualifications and competence. The government also points out that Sri Lanka is not militarized State as it neither has compulsory military service nor conscription. The UN has itself certified Sri Lanka as not having child soldiers (only the LTTE had them as UN official Olara Otunnu pointed out after a visit in 1998).
On the charge that Sri Lanka is deploying the army in civilian duties, the government says it has the sovereign right to move its army units anywhere and assign any task to it. Even advanced countries use the armed forces to help civil authorities during emergencies. The government also points out the dangers in lowering vigil as it was lowering of vigil which had enabled suicide bombers to kill 277 and injure 592 on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019.
The OHCHR had alleged that in the aftermath of the Eastern Sunday bombings there were widespread anti-Muslim riots and there was prolonged emergency with extra deployment of the military. Responding to this, the government says after the “most horrific” incident government had to impose an emergency and use every available resource to tackle the situation.
On the allegation that the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic had showed up “structural inequalities,” the government points out that structural inequalities have shown up even in advanced countries. The ban on burials rests on scientific considerations and the public good, it adds.
On the charge of “indiscriminate shelling” in the last phase of the 2006-2009 war, the government points out that the Advisory Council to the Paranagama Commission comprising lawyers Sir Desmond de Silva, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC (UK) and David M. Crane (USA) assisted by Rodney Dixon, Michael Newton (USA) and Major General J Holmes had said excessive force was not used. UNICEF Executive Director James Grant had said that food was not denied to the people trapped in the war zone. “Supply was uniquely humanitarian in a conflict situation,” Grant said. It was also agreed that the LTTE was using civilians as a shield. Lord Michael Naseby had said the government had not broken any provisions of international Humanitarian Law.
On the punitive measures the OHCHR suggested, the government says dragging Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges is “disproportionate and unwarranted” and warns that it will be deemed “an unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign State and a contravention of the UN Charter.”
On the recommendation of targeted sanctions against individuals, it says sanctioning someone in the absence of credible findings by a competent court or body, indicates a “political agenda to destabilize a country, violate individual rights and contravene the principles of natural justice.”
The government’s contention is that the OHCHR has been oblivious to the genuine and feasible commitments undertaken by Sri Lanka and the progress being achieved in their implementation, and has instead chosen to come to “sweeping, impetuous conclusions.”
According to the government, “it can only be concluded that Sri Lanka has been selected and targeted by the OHCHR for purposes other than promotion of human rights. Sri Lanka has been a victim of a collateral exercise.”The hint is that Sri Lanka is an innocent victim of Big Power rivalry.