The Sri Lankan government should fulfill its commitments to the United Nations Human Rights Council by ensuring that foreign judges and prosecutors play a significant role in the mandated accountability mechanism for wartime abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. On January 21, 2016, President Maithripala Sirisena told the BBC, contrary to Sri Lanka’s council commitments, that he will “never agree to international involvement,” saying “[w]e have more than enough specialists, experts and knowledgeable people in our country to solve our internal issues."
Human Rights Council member and observer countries that backed the consensus October 2015 resolution, should make clear that foreign participation in a war crimes tribunal was already decided by the council and is not subject to renegotiation. After adoption of the resolution, Sri Lanka told the council that it was pleased to join as a co-sponsor “as a further manifestation of Sri Lanka’s commitment to implement the provisions of the resolution, in a manner that its objectives are shared by the people and all stakeholders in the country, for their benefit.”
“The Sri Lankan government sought international involvement to ensure justice and accountability so there’s no excuse for backtracking now,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “President Sirisena needs to understand that international participation in a war crimes tribunal was not a vague promise to the UN but a firm commitment to the thousands of Sri Lankans who suffered during the country’s long civil war.”
President Sirisena’s statement comes just weeks before a scheduled visit to the country by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. The high commissioner’s office released a report detailing wartime abuses by both sides, calling for a “hybrid” justice mechanism given the shortcomings of domestic institutions to ensure impartial investigations and witness protection, and the Sri Lankan government’s failure to take meaningful accountability measures since the war ended in May 2009. The 2015 Human Rights Council resolution affirms the importance of participation in a justice mechanism of “Commonwealth and other foreign judges … and authorized prosecutors and investigators.”
In line with its commitments, the government should be implementing its plans for a war crimes tribunal with international participation, a Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation, and Non-recurrence, and an Office on Missing Persons. Progress on those commitments has been slow and not wholly transparent. A task force on consultations on the Human Rights Council resolution has been established, but there is little public information about its mandate and terms of reference. Victims and their representative groups have not been informed about the consultation, leaving many feeling isolated and shut out from a process ostensibly intended to provide real justice to them. The recent statements by the president and prime minister, who said that all missing persons are presumed dead, raise concerns that consultations will merely be window dressing for a predetermined outcome.
“The countries that worked so closely with Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council last year have a responsibility to ensure that this important resolution will be properly adopted,” Adams said. “The real rights gains made by the Sirisena administration will rapidly fade if the families of wartime victims feel that their one hope for justice was dropped on the basis of political calculations.”