From whatever angle we look at it, there were positive as well as negative aspects in the statement made by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein at the media briefing at the end of his four-day official visit to Sri Lanka.
He described the Sri Lankan judiciary as highly politicized, unbalanced and unreliable and said the police, all too frequently, continued to resort to violence and the size of the military force in the North and the East could be reduced. On the other hand he said the government had shown a will to bring about great changes and that Sri Lanka had many excellent judges, lawyers and law enforcement officials. To top it all he said it was the sovereign right of Sri Lanka to decide on the accountability process.
As usual, some media outlets preferred to highlight what they perceived as the negative aspects of the statement for obvious reasons while some others did the opposite by highlighting the important points of the Human Rights Chief’s briefing.
Prince Al Hussein’s visit had added value in the wake of President Maithripala Sirisena’s controversial remark which seemed to go against the spirit of the resolution adopted at one of the last year’s UNHRC sessions. Many expected a rebuttal from the high ranking UN official against the President’s statement, made at an interview with the BBC Sinhala service, Sandeshaya, that he would “never agree to international involvement,” in the accountability process.
However, to the amazement of many political analysts who thought that UN Human Rights Chief would take the President to task and to the utter disappointment of the opposition group led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Prince Al Hussein seemed to have looked at the President’s remarks in a pacifying manner.
In an apparent pointer to the President’s statement he told the media that he had been “told by the victims in the North and the East and by some analysts that they feared that the government may be wavering with regard to its human rights commitments.” Then in a mollifying tone but with diplomatic vagueness he stated, “I was, therefore, reassured last morning when I heard both President and the Prime Minister state their firm commitment in this regard.”
Does it mean that the President had again fallen in line with last year’s Geneva resolution that recommended the involvement of foreign judges in Sri Lanka’s domestic mechanism to investigate alleged war crimes and human rights violations? However, Prince Hussein then offered a concession to the government by saying that, “Although the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) makes a recommendation on the judicial process into alleged war crimes or on the involvement of foreign judges, it was is Sri Lanka’s sovereign right to decide.”
Whatever the government’s opponents and the Tamil groups might say with regard to this concession, this is no doubt a great relief to the Government, compared to what was recommended for Sri Lanka by the OHCHR report as well as the UNHRC resolution last year. The “Hybrid court” recommended by the report was switched to a domestic mechanism with the participation of “Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators” by the subsequent UNHRC resolution. And now the UN Human Rights Chief says, “Whatever we see from our side, it is your sovereign right to decide.”
Nowhere in his statement had he insisted on the involvement of foreign judges in Sri Lanka’s accountability process. “There was no invocation of an international investigation, and the process is going to be a Sri Lankan one,” Prince Al Hussein said.
Although he had left the Sri Lankan Government to decide on international involvement, his statement cannot be seen as a carte blanche for the government. He said “We felt that by an international jurisdiction this could be guaranteed. Now there may be other views and certainly, the views of the victims must be brought into the discussion. He suggested consultation with the representatives of the victims twice during his media briefing. Apart from the above he said, “What matters at the end is that justice is served to the victims… And for that reason consultation is vital for Sri Lanka.”
Although people from all parts of the country including those in the South had been victims of human rights violations during the war, the UN Human Rights Chief seems to have referred to the Tamil victims in the North and the East. The possible representatives of those victims seem to be the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) the leaders of which during a meeting with the Human Rights High Commissioner had highlighted the need for the UNHRC resolution adopted last year to be fully implemented through a credible process.
Despite the TNA being in good terms with the leaders of the new government led by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, it would be difficult for the main Tamil coalition to agree to a totally domestic judicial process in respect of human rights in the light of the recent emergence of a rival political entity, the Tamil People’s Council (TPC) led by Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran who is surrounded by Northern extremists. Hence, the government would have to engage the extreme groups in the North as well in this regard.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had told that the co-sponsoring of the Geneva resolution was a betrayal of the country and the armed forces. In spite of the fact that the co-sponsoring can be described as an unnecessary extra mile to go, he did not suggest any valid alternative to the government’s approach towards the UNHRC actions on Sri Lanka. His government rejected all resolutions adopted by the Human Rights Council, but the council toughened its attitude towards the country each year and finally an ex parte international investigation was carried out by the council. The Council would not have thrust aside the report of the investigation just because Sri Lankan government had rejected it but is is bound to take the next step. One has to compare the present outcome in such a scenario.
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