Sri Lanka suffers from a continuing accountability deficit - be it for war crime atrocities, more recent human rights violations, corruption, or abuse of power - which must be addressed for the country to move forward, according to a UN Human Rights Office report published on Wednesday.
“More than a year ago mass protests demanded better governance and an inclusive vision for Sri Lanka - in short, a renewal of the social contract. But the potential for a historic transformation that would address long-standing challenges is far from being realised,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk.
Fourteen years since the end of the war, tens of thousands of victims and their families continue to experience the pain and agony of seeking truth, justice, and remedy. While the Government has proposed a new truth-seeking mechanism, the report stresses that the groundwork needs to be laid by genuine efforts to create the enabling environment for any transitional justice process to succeed.
This starts through meaningful and transparent consultations with victims and civil society on the current truth-seeking proposal and includes an end to all forms of harassment and unlawful and arbitrary surveillance against human rights defenders and victims’ groups, as well as support for initiatives to acknowledge and memorialize the experience of victims.
“Truth-seeking alone will not suffice. It must also be accompanied by a clear commitment to accountability and the political will to implement far-reaching change,” Türk said.
Among other recommendations, the report calls on the authorities to accelerate investigations and prosecutions into emblematic cases of human rights violations, as well as the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings. The High Commissioner has previously urged an independent investigation with international assistance to pursue further lines of inquiry into the full circumstances of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks.
The report provides an update on the work of the accountability project established by the UN Human Rights Office pursuant to resolutions 46/1 and 51/1. The High Commissioner repeated his call for the international community to support accountability initiatives, notably through investigations and prosecutions using universal or extra-territorial jurisdiction, with other complementary measures.
The report also details a number of concerns with proposed new laws, including a new Anti-Terrorism Bill and legislation to regulate broadcasting.
The report notes that the President has set a different tone in advancing reconciliation initiatives and has promised to stop land acquisition for archaeological, or security purposes, which has been an increasing source of local conflicts and tension. At the same time, the UN Human Rights Office continued to receive reports of disputes over land, particularly in the North and East of the country.
The continuing impact of the economic crisis of 2022 and the global downturn on people’s human rights and well-being is highlighted in the report, including a dramatic increase in Sri Lanka’s poverty rate which doubled from 13% in 2021 to 25% in 2022. Food insecurity is affecting a significant proportion of the population, in turn impacting the right to health and increasing the risk of school dropouts.
The High Commissioner said the international community, including international financial institutions, should support Sri Lanka in its economic recovery and in meeting its international obligations, while pressing for genuine progress in governance, transparency, and accountability.
“I urge the Government and Sri Lankan political parties to strive for and deliver on the urgent need for renewal, deeper institutional reforms and tangible progress on accountability, reconciliation and human rights,” Türk said. “This would be particularly appropriate in this year that marks both the 75th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence and the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”