This Human Rights Day, Stand Up for Human Rights in Sri Lanka
December 10, 2016. This International Human Rights Day – themed “Stand up for someone’s rights” – there’s a lot to stand up for.
In the weeks since Trump won the US Presidential election, hate crimes against Muslims, people of color, and immigrants have spiked; white nationalists have been appointed to top positions in the White House; and many of Trump’s election pledges – from deporting undocumented persons, to enacting a ban on the entry to Muslims into America – have millions fearing for their basic rights and freedoms.
The impact of Trump’s presidency is also reverberating around the world.
On November 29th, news broke that Sri Lanka’s President, Maithripala Sirisena, had asked Trump for support to “free” Sri Lankan army officials from war crimes allegations.
Backpedalling on War Crimes Allegations & The Role of the US
The US has played a significant and important role in advocating for reconciliation and human rights in Sri Lanka over the last few years. Between 2012 and 2014, the US sponsored three UN human rights resolutions on Sri Lanka,1 advocating for a comprehensive investigation into alleged war crimes committed during the war. After much stonewalling by former-President Mahinda Rajapaska, the devastating OHCHR investigation report was finally released in September 2015.2
Two weeks after the release, a fourth US-led human rights resolution was passed, this time co-sponsored by the Sri Lankan government. The resolution included a proposal by the Sri Lankan government to establish a judicial mechanism to investigate war crimes allegations, and affirmed the importance of including independent judicial institutions and foreign legal experts in this process.
Unfortunately, in the 15 months since the resolution was passed, President Sirisena has made it abundantly clear that international involvement will not be welcome in their war crimes court. On several occasions, the President has denied allegations of war crimes against Sri Lankan forces, and in November 2016, he even bragged that his ability to change the minds of the international community regarding the need to include foreign legal experts was a “great victory.”
Sirisena’s message to Donald Trump is yet another sign that the Sri Lankan President has no intention to actually deal with war crimes allegations, posing a serious threat to reconciliation in the country.
The Long Road to Justice in Sri Lanka
But while President Sirisena sets about denying the past, serious threats continue to plague many in Sri Lanka, in particular the country’s minority citizens.
In August, the recently formed Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) released its first Interim Report, providing recommendations on the creation of an Office on Missing Persons (OMP). The report reveals serious concerns around the ability to safely conduct consultations in Sri Lanka, including allegations of ongoing human rights abuses, the abduction and intimidation of victims and human rights defenders, and a pervasive fear of speaking out at consultations. To make matters worse, the OMP Act itself includes language that could give immunity to people who offer evidence about abductions and disappearances to the office “in good faith.” This could seriously undermine judicial mechanisms to come.3
Then in September, draft legislation designed to replace Sri Lanka’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was leaked. Sri Lanka’s 1979 PTA was a tool used extensively during the civil war to arrest people on the mere suspicion of association with the LTTE, the Tamil separatist movement. Today, well over 100 people remain in custody thanks to the bill, nearly 30 of whom have never been indicted. The repeal of the PTA has been a major aspect of reconciliation in the country. But according to many, the draft legislation of the newly proposed Counter Terrorism Act, is even worse, with some claiming the cure may be “far worse than the disease.”4
Finally, in October, a report by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found that torture and impunity are alive and well in Sri Lanka. The report was submitted to the UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) as part of a review of allegations of torture in the Sri Lanka. The UNCAT process also included an in-person session in Geneva. Incredibly, the 11-person delegation sent to attend these meetings in Geneva included Sisira Mendis, the current chief of State Intelligence Service and formerly the Deputy Inspector General of Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Under his watch at the CID, many alleged acts of torture took place. Mendis was grilled on his alleged knowledge of and involvement in these acts by UNCAT members, but refused to respond.5 His presence at the UNCAT proceedings was incredibly offensive to victims of torture and resulted in calls for his arrest in Geneva.
Couple these recent events with the fact that 12,750 acres of land in the North remains occupied by the army and over 44,000 conflict-affected IDPs are without their homes and livelihoods, and the road to justice in looks longer than ever.
We Must All Stand Up for Human Rights in Sri Lanka
So today, while we are reminded to stand up for people’s rights around the world, let us not forget Sri Lanka. As President Sirisena turns to Donald Trump to try to erase the past and halt the process of justice, we must work to ensure that US foreign policy continues to advocate for human rights advancements – not abuses – in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. And with an update on Sri Lanka scheduled for the UN Human Rights Council in March 2017, the international community must stand firm on their commitment to true justice and reconciliation in the country.
This is a crucial moment, and we must all take a stand.
-  You can access copies of these resolutions here, here, and here.
-  The report found that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that gross violations of international human rights law, serious violations of international humanitarian law and international crimes were committed by all parties during the period under investigation. Indeed, if established before a court of law, many of these allegations would amount … to war crimes and/or crimes against humanity.” Para. 1113.
-  The Sri Lanka Monitoring and Accountability Panel (MAP) has analyzed the OMP Act, including discussion on the issues of immunity. For more of their analysis, please see: http://war-victims-map.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Initial-Statement-on-OMP-Act-.pdf
-  For additional critiques and analysis, please see: http://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/speech-and-spies-why-sri-lankas-new-counterterrorism-law-is-a-terrible-idea/
-  The full final session of the UNCAT hearing during which Sisira Mendis was grilled is available at the link below. Questioning by UNCAT Vice-Chairperson Ms. Felice Gaer begins at 1:59:24. Chairperson Jens Modvig then announces that the Sri Lankan delegation, and in particular Sisira Mendis, have been asked to respond at 2:17:55. The response from Sri Lanka runs from 2:30:16 – 2:56:41. Despite the time being offered to specifically hear from Sisira Mendis, Mr. Mendis does not speak during this time, a fact that is noted in Chairperson Modvig’s final comments (2:56:42 – 2:57:14). http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-treaty-bodies/watch/replies-of-sri-lanka-1475th-meeting-59th-session-committee-against-torture-/5212730222001#full-text