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    Sri Lanka: UN rights chief welcomes reform but concerns remain

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    Sri Lanka: UN rights chief welcomes reform but concerns remain

    Sri Lanka has taken steps towards legal, institutional and security sector reforms, but more action is still needed, according to a report issued on Friday by the UN human rights office which examines developments over the past year. 

    In a new report on Sri Lanka released on Friday, UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet recognised recent steps to initiate reforms.  But she has also expressed concern over a number of human rights trends in the country.

    “While we recognize the renewed willingness of the Government of Sri Lanka to engage constructively with our Office, including in the preparation of the report, we urge the Government to go much further with the legal, institutional and security sector reforms necessary to comply with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations,” the human rights body said in a press statement.

    Setbacks to accountability 

    OHCHR noted setbacks to accountability for past human rights violations and the recognition of victims’ rights, Spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani told journalists in Geneva.

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    “The High Commissioner highlights particularly the continuing precarious situation of the families of the disappeared – the majority of whom are represented by women,” she said.

    “We urge the Government to acknowledge their sufferings, urgently determine the fate or whereabouts of victims, provide reparations, and bring perpetrators to justice.”

    Surveillance and harassment

    The report, which was prepared for the UN Human Rights Council, also makes note of continuing trends toward militarization and ethno-religious nationalism that “undermine democratic institutions, increase the anxiety of minorities, and impede reconciliation.”

    Additionally, the pattern of surveillance and harassment by security forces of civil society organizations, human rights defenders, journalists and victims, highlighted in previous reports, has also continued, particularly in the north and east.

    Ms. Shamdasani said the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) Amendment Bill, presented to Parliament earlier this month, is an important initial step.

    “The High Commissioner welcomes the proposed increase of magistrates’ powers to visit places of detention, the speeding up of trials and the repeal of section 14, which imposes serious limitations on publications,” she added.

    Towards peace and reconciliation

    However, Ms. Shamdasani said that other proposed amendments do not comply fully with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations, leaving some of the most “problematic” provisions of the PTA intact.

    This has led to alleged human rights violations, including arbitrary detention and torture.

    Since June, more than 80 suspects detained under the PTA have been released.  OHCHR has welcomed this development, while urging the authorities to impose a moratorium on continued use of the law.

    “Sri Lanka will only achieve sustainable development and peace and lasting reconciliation if it ensures civic space, independent and inclusive institutions, and puts an end to systemic impunity,” said Ms. Shamdasani.

    A fresh start?

    Friday’s report is a huge development from a previous assessment on March 2019. Then, the Human Rights High Commissioner had publicly confronted the Sri Lankan government for putting out a misleading version of her assessment.

    “I am deeply disappointed by the spin that has been put on my discussion with the Sri Lankan Government delegation,” Bachelet had said, adding, “Either the newspaper misunderstood the Governor, or the Governor misunderstood – or misquoted – me.”

    Then, Sri Lanka’s Northern Province Governor, Dr. Suren Raghaven had conveyed an impression to the media that there was disagreement within the OHCHR of its assessment of the rights situation in the island nation.

    According to the governor, the High Commissioner had “admitted that certain facts incorporated in the UNHRC (UN Human Rights Council) report against Sri Lanka could not be condoned whatsoever.”

    It was an ugly spat. The UNFRC put out an official statement saying that the Sri Lankan official had misrepresented the discussion on UN human rights report to the media.

    A tweet was also put out quoting Bachelet as saying, “I am deeply disappointed by the spin that has been put on my discussion with the Sri Lankan government delegation.”

    She also highlighted concerns about the appointment of military officers who were implicated in alleged serious rights violations and the “lack of progress” in setting up a special tribunal to deal with the worst crimes after a brutal civil war that ended in 2009.

     

    Image: Hippopx. Licensed to use Creative Commons Zero – CC0 

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