The Human Rights Council opened its forty-fifth regular session on 14 September 2020, hearing a global human rights update from Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as separate updates on the human rights situations in Nicaragua and Venezuela. The High Commissioner said that with COVID-19, a fast-moving and global health crisis had collided with many slower, and more entrenched, political, social and economic crises around the world.

Referring to Sri Lanka in the Global Human Rights Update the High Commissioner said; “I am troubled that the new Government is swiftly reneging on its commitments to the Human Rights Council since it withdrew its support for resolution 30/1.”

Among other developments, the proposed 20th amendment to the Constitution may negatively impact on the independence of key institutions, including the National Human Rights Commission. The pardon given in March to a former Army sergeant convicted of participating in unlawful killings; appointments to key civilian roles of senior military officials allegedly involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity; and moves within the police and judiciary to thwart the investigation of such crimes, set a very negative trend.

The surveillance and intimidation of victims, their families, human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers should cease immediately. I encourage the Council to give renewed attention to Sri Lanka, in view of the need to prevent threats to peace, reconciliation and sustainable development.

Meanwhile, in a 19 page report, (A/HRC/45/45/Add.1) to the UNHRC, Pablo de Greiff, the former Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence, examines the progress made in implementing transitional justice measures in Sri Lanka following the 25-year conflict that ended in May 2009.

In the report, the Special Rapporteur acknowledges the capacities developed by civil society and parts of the Government in addressing transitional justice issues and notes the progress made in some areas, including the establishment of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms, the creation of the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations and the opening up of space for discussion about transitional justice.Despite the opportunities for genuine change and reform, the Special Rapporteur notes the Government’s failure to adopt and implement a comprehensive transitional justice policy with the four constitutive elements of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. Progress has been hindered by a lack of commitment on the part of the Government. As a result, Sri Lanka appears to have missed an historic opportunity to provide lessons to the world about how sustainable peace ought to be achieved.

The Special Rapporteur concludes with recommendations concerning confidence-building measures, truth-seeking mechanisms, accountability, reparation programmes and guarantees of non-recurrence Repeal the  Prevention  of  Terrorism  Act,  end military involvement in commercial activities etc.

The Special Rapporteur states that the promise made not to try “war heroes” is a legally unenforceable political statement and therefore cannot offer any real security. Implementing such a promise would ultimately require, domestically, a violation of the principle of the separation of powers, among other things, and, internationally, offers absolutely no warranty. As experiences in other countries have shown, accountability will be sought either at home or abroad. This is an additional reason for the Government of Sri Lanka, together with the full support of the armed forces, which stand to gain from this process, to establish a robust, credible and comprehensive transitional justice policy

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