SRI LANKA: The Government recognises the mistakes of the past and the weaknesses of its institutions

The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, abandoned the practices of the previous government delegations to the UN Human Rights Council in the recent years, has frankly admitted before the Council the mistakes of the past and the weaknesses of the Sri Lankan institutions. Previous delegations came with the sole purpose of denying all allegations against gross violations of human rights and to virtually take up an aggressive position against all their critiques. These delegations had no scruples in breaking all ethical norms and codes of honour in doing, what they thought was their duty towards their nation by obediently carrying out the briefing provided by the previous regime. In contrast, Minister Samaraweera took a sober position addressing the Human Rights Council in its 28th Session, on 14th September 2015 and demonstrated remarkable political courage and stated the new Government’s wish “to renew its engagement with the international community, including the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and his office, and start taking steps aimed at achieving meaningful reconciliation, strengthening democratic institutions, good governance, the rule of law, and confidence building among communities affected by the conflicts for many years.” The Minister went on to state that “Today, we have a Government in place which acknowledges the suffering of victims across Sri Lanka’s communities; a Government which recognizes the mistakes of the past; and is all too aware of the weaknesses of our institutions. A Government that does not seek to take cover by distorting concepts and principles such as sovereignty for its own selfish ends, but instead remains firmly committed to the welfare of all its citizens, remains open to dialogue, and to address difficulties and deficiencies with help and assistance from the international community where required. “

To those who claim “that there can never be justice in Sri Lanka or that there can never be recognition of all communities as equal” he said “don’t judge us by the broken promises, experiences, and U-turns of the past.”

In his speech he also announced the establishment by statute, of two mechanisms for truth seeking; i.) A Commission for truth justice and reconciliation, and non-recurrence to be evolved in consultations with relevant authorities in South Africa. “This mechanism is envisaged as having a dual structure: a ‘compassionate council’ composed of religious dignitaries from all major religions and a structure composed of Commissioners; and ii.) an Office of Missing Persons based on principles of the families’ right to know, with expertise from ICRC, and in line with internationally accepted standards.

On right to justice, “what is being proposed is for a judicial mechanism with a Special Counsel to be set up by statute”, this will ensure the victims right to a fair remedy and the prevention of impunity for human rights violations.

The Asian Human Rights Commission specially notes the following assurance given by the Foreign Minister on the prevention of torture and ill treatment where the Minister went on to state that the Government will “issue instructions clearly to all branches of the security forces that torture, rape, sexual violence and other human rights violations are prohibited and that those responsible will be investigated and punished”.

The Minister further announced that the Government will undertake to “review and repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act and replace it with anti-terrorism legislation in line with contemporary international best practices”.

The Minister also undertook to “sign and ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances without delay and to criminalise hate speech and enforced disappearances.

These were among the many assurances given by the Foreign Minister to the Human Rights Council on behalf of the Sri Lankan Government.

The Asian Human Rights Commission observes that the candid admissions made by the Foreign Minister and the assurances given by him in order to take corrective measures, though belated are to be appreciated.

The damage done to Sri Lanka’s constitutional structure and the legal system since the adoption of the 1978 Constitution is colossal. Restoring constitutional governance on the basis of liberal democratic principles and the reforming of a dysfunctional legal system are formidable tasks. To bring about an actual change would require much more than a statement of a few broad promises. Each of these promises would need to be spelled out in great detail and that would require a great deal of work on the part of the Government, working with its experts. It is hoped that after taking this initial step to express willingness to work in cooperation with the UN Human Rights Council and other international agencies, the government will soon place before the people a more detailed plan of how the measures announced at the Human Rights Council, by the Foreign Minister will be effected in Sri Lanka.

It is quite symbolic that the very same day the Foreign Minister made this speech, one of the most gruesome rape incident of a young girl, where the victim was murdered is sending shock waves in the country. The crucial issue is that the law enforcement in Sri Lanka has collapsed. It is this that will force the greatest challenge to the achievement of the assurances that the Foreign Minister placed before the UN Human Rights Council. When the system of police investigations and the judiciary has failed to an extent as it has happened in Sri Lanka, how is it possible to place confidence that the measures proposed by the Minister can in fact be practically realised in Sri Lanka. Even a case like the Wasim Thajudeen case, has proved how easily Sri Lanka’s justice mechanism can be manipulated to make a murder appear to be an accident. The Government has not shown that it is willing to deal with the dysfunctional nature of its system of justice. Therefore, sceptics will still have doubts on the practical realisation of the Minister’s promises to the Human Rights Council.