Weak Response from Country Core Group Ignores Victims’ Plight
by John Fisher, Human Rights Watch, March 3, 2020
During his presidential campaign and after his election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa left little doubt that Sri Lanka would not enforce its commitments on justice and accountability agreed to at the United Nations Human Rights Council. So the foreign minister’s announcement in Geneva last week that Sri Lanka was withdrawing from the 2015 resolution that addressed crimes by all sides during the 26-year civil war was no surprise.
After all, many leading figures in the new administration – including President Rajapaksa, who was defense secretary when the war ended in 2009 – have been implicated in alleged war crimes.
So it was particularly disappointing that the UN Core Group on Sri Lanka – including the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, and Montenegro – did not stand by the numerous victims of abuses by calling for renewed Human Rights Council action. In its statement, the Core Group merely “encourage[d] the government of Sri Lanka to continue cooperation and dialogue” – a naïve appeal in the face of the Sri Lankan government’s explicit repudiation of its commitments.Successive UN reports have documented countless laws-of-war violations by both government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But since taking office, Rajapaksa has repeatedly made clear his government was not going to punish members of the security forces accused of war crimes, and has already stalled pending investigations. At the same time, the government is rapidly putting civilian state agencies under military control, and intelligence agencies are increasing their surveillance and intimidation of victims’ families, human rights activists, and journalists. The government told the council it would create yet another domestic commission of inquiry, but there is a long record of such bodies failing in Sri Lanka.International involvement is crucial for any accountability process in Sri Lanka to have credibility and obtain a measure of justice for the victims. But under the current administration, victims have no realistic options beyond the Human Rights Council. Instead of placing faith in empty government promises, the Core Group should be leading the call for the council to create an international justice mechanism.
The High Commissioner has rightly insisted that any access to China’s Xinjiang region should be unfettered, so that she can conduct the in-depth analysis of the human rights situation in the country that is sorely needed. Surely no state can object to independent access and reporting so that the Council is better informed of the situation – even China claims it supports this goal. We therefore call on all delegations to publicly support the High Commissioner’s call, including presentation of a full report to the Council. No state should tarnish its credibility by endorsing China’s ludicrously self-congratulatory counternarrative until the Council has received a full independent assessment.
From the moment the Rajapaksas – implicated in war crimes – resumed office, they made it clear they intended to walk Sri Lanka away from the Council resolutions. Of course, withdrawal of cosponsorship is not possible more than two weeks after a session ends – all Sri Lanka has done is announce that it does not intend to honor its commitments to this Council, turned the resolution process from a consensual to a contested one, and joined the ignominious ranks of Myanmar, Syria and North Korea in refusing to accept responsibility for grave human rights violations.
There is no prospect that yet another domestic commission will advance justice for the tens of thousands summarily executed, tortured or forcibly disappeared. Apart from the long history of failed commissions, the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka made clear that a purely domestic process could not promote meaningful accountability due to lack of judicial independence, risk of reprisals, political interference, and “the deep-seated and institutionalized impunity that generates the risk of such violations being repeated.”
The High Commissioner has stressed that Sri Lanka’s repeated failures to “establish a trustworthy domestic mechanism to address impunity” mean alternatives such as international investigations and prosecutions are needed. Sri Lanka has had its opportunity. Now the Human Rights Council needs to create an international accountability mechanism as a matter of urgency.