United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, prior to his oral report that is to be released today (29), said he ‘remains convinced’ that international participation in the accountability mechanisms would be a necessary guarantee of the independence and impartiality of the process in the eyes of victims, as Sri Lanka’s judicial institutions currently lack the credibility needed to gain their trust.
In his advanced oral report made yesterday, at the 32 session of the UNHRC in Geneva, the UN Rights Commissioner said Sri Lanka must keep in mind that the magnitude and complexity of the international crimes alleged, which the OHCHR investigation discovered, could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity and he remains convinced that international participation in the accountability mechanisms would guarantee an independent and impartial probe process.
He also called for an impartial and independent probe on new evidence that emerged recently on the use of cluster munitions towards the end of the conflict by the government Forces and recalled that the OHCHR investigation report also had mentioned the use of cluster bombs.
He noted that in late May 2016, it was reported that Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had in an address to a large group of senior military officers again ruled out international participation in a domestic Sri Lankan justice mechanism – but he remains convinced that international participation guarantees independence and impartiality.
While commending Government’s symbolic steps towards promoting reconciliation and de-listing of several Tamil diaspora organizations and individuals who had been proscribed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), Zeid noted that the GoSL has made more than 40 new PTA arrests in 2015-16, including more than 25 in March-April 2016, during a security operation after the discovery of an explosives cache in Jaffna.
He stated that the manner in which some of these arrests reportedly took place, in an arbitrary manner and without adherence to established legal procedure, have led some to compare them to the infamous ‘white van’ abductions/disappearances of the past.
While there are clear differences (all those arrested reappeared in detention in a matter of hours), such cases strike fear in the community and undermine confidence in the government’s efforts to restore the rule of law and criminal procedures in accordance with the law and international standards.
He said that the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture had also at the end of his visit made reference to recurring allegations of torture and ill-treatment of detainees, albeit with less frequency and severity than in the past. Some groups have also reported cases of torture and sexual abuse of Tamils returning to Sri Lanka from abroad who are suspected of LTTE involvement.
” In December 2015, the government released on bail 39 individuals detained without charge, but around 250 detainees are believed to remain in detention. The government has filed indictments in 117 of these cases, and in January created a special High Court Bench to expedite proceedings. The government had promised the Attorney-General’s Office would make decisions by the end of March 2016 but there have been no further indictments or releases this year. This situation is not only traumatic for the individuals concerned , some of whom resorted to hunger strikes, and for their families, but a source of growing frustration among Tamil political parties and the community at large. At the end of his visit in February 2016, the High Commissioner urged the government to quickly find a formula to charge or release the remaining security-related detainees. This situation is compounded by the government’s continued reliance on the PTA to make new arrests, despite its commitment to repeal the law, he added.
He also reiterated that these continuing concerns point to a deeper challenge for the government in asserting full civilian control over the military and intelligence establishment and dismantling the units and structures allegedly responsible for grave violations in the past.
Despite welcoming the steps towards demilitarization, such as the removal of checkpoints, the military presence in the North and East remains heavy, and a culture of surveillance and, in certain instances, intimidation and harassment, persists, he noted.
The High Commissioner firmly believes that bold and visible steps of this kind can have a far-reaching effect in creating a climate of confidence and trust, but obviously need to be accompanied by more institutionalized change.
He also noted his concerns about the continued aggressive campaigns in social media and other forms (such as the Sinha Le bumper sticker campaign) which stoke nationalism against ethnic, religious and other minorities.