Colombo, September 14 (Economynext): Sri Lanka has sought “genuine support and understanding” of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to address the island nation’s past human rights issues amid fresh calls to address economic crimes possibly targeting the former first family.
Sri Lanka under former leaders Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa have rejected many past UN resolutions aiming at addressing the past human rights violations, but were compelled to implement some of the mechanisms agreed by the previous government to international criticism amid a looming economic crisis in the last two years.
Nada Al- Nashif, UN Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights in her report said impunity remains a central obstacle to the rule of law, reconciliation and Sri Lanka’s sustainable peace and development.
“This impunity continues to embolden those committing human rights violations, has created fertile ground for corruption and the abuse of power, as well as contributing to the present economic crisis,” she said in her report presented at the 51st UNHRC session this week.
She also said that the team established in the office of the UN high commissioner of the human rights (OHCHR) to advance accountability pursuant to the last resolution which Sri Lanka has been opposing to cooperate “has made important progress”.
“It has conducted proactive investigative and analytical work, including in relation to gender and child-related violations, and is consolidating information and evidence collected by the United Nations and other bodies and entities into a repository, which will assist future accountability initiatives,” she said.
“OHCHR will continue to place victims at the heart of this work. This includes seeking to minimise security risks faced by those who speak out about past violations.”
UN human rights chief Al-Nashif’s comments come as Sri Lanka is in transition after massive protests forced Rajapaksas out of power. Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned from the Prime Minister post on May 9 amid violence after his supporters attacked unarmed and peaceful protesters. Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the presidential palace on July 9 before stepping down amid public protest against his failures to handle the economic crisis. However, analysts say Rajapaksas are still in power through their proxies and in the process of coming back again.
Rights groups have said the UN should keep the pressure on Sri Lanka given it has always been evading the accountability of past human rights violations.
Credible Truth Seeking Mechanism?
While trying to avoid a possible new resolution, the Sri Lankan delegation led by Foreign Minister Ali Sabry said the island nation, hard hit by the economic crisis, would not agree on the clause of the previous resolution that has started external evidence gathering.
“Measures aimed at promoting reconciliation and human rights, if they are to be meaningful and sustainable, must be based on cooperation with the country concerned, be compatible with the aspirations of its people, and be consonant with its basic legal framework,” Minister Sabry, a lawyer by profession, told in his speech.
“We endeavour to establish a credible truth-seeking mechanism within the framework of the Constitution. The contours of a model that would suit the particular conditions of Sri Lanka are under discussion.”
Some member countries and rights groups raised concerns around freedom of expression, as peaceful protests resulting from the crisis situation were met with violence and Sri Lankan authorities were urged to stop arbitrary arrests of those engaging in peaceful protests.
Rights groups also raised concerns over Sri Lanka’s repeated failure to pursue transitional justice and successive governments creating political obstacles to accountability, and actively promoting some officials credibly implicated in alleged war crimes, into the highest levels of government.
“The High Commissioner called on States to pursue alternate strategies to advance accountability at the international level, including through the consideration of targeted sanctions against alleged perpetrators, as well as cooperation to initiate prosecutions based on extraterritorial jurisdiction,” the UNHRC said in a statement on the discussion held in Sri Lanka.
In a separate comprehensive report, the UN body said the High Commissioner encourages the international community to support Sri Lanka in its recovery, but also in addressing the underlying causes of the crisis, including impunity for human rights violations and economic crimes.
“Simultaneously, a number of corruption and other related economic crimes cases between 2020 and 2022 were discontinued, following withdrawal of charges or indictments on various technical grounds by the Attorney General or the Commission to Investigate Bribery or Corruption,” the report said.
“The Government informed OHCHR of plans to update laws to strengthen commissions dealing with bribery and procurement and other anti-corruption measures.”
“The High Commissioner hopes that the new administration will respond to the popular demand for accountability for economic crimes, including corruption, and abuse of power with a renewed commitment to end impunity.”
The OHCHR also has recommended member countries to support Sri Lanka in the investigation of economic crimes that impact on human rights and the tracing and recovery of stolen assets.
Analysts say the economic crimes could target Rajapaksas, who have led the country from 2005-2022 except in 2015-2019. Most of the economic crimes as well as recovery of stolen assets are targeting Rajapaksas, they say.
Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Sabry in his statement said the term “economic crimes” is ambiguous and is a matter of concern that such reference by the human rights chief exceeds the mandate of the OHCHR.
“The proposed 22nd Amendment to the Constitution introduces several salient changes which would strengthen democratic governance and independent oversight of key institutions, and combat corruption
including through the constitutional recognition of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC),” he said.