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Michelle Bachelet urges member states to pay attention on human rights development in Sri Lanka

Michelle Bachelet

UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has urged the member states of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to pay close attention to developments in Sri Lanka on human rights, while welcoming Sri Lankan President’s statement in June that his Government was committed to work with the UN to ensure accountability and would implement necessary institutional reforms.

She was delivering an oral update on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka at the 48th Session of the UNHRC session held on Monday, September 13 in Geneva. Michelle Bachelet said:

“I am pleased to update the Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka and the trends and issues identified in my last report. I acknowledge the inputs sent by the Government in preparation for this update, and I note the President's statement in June that the Government is “committed to work with the UN to ensure accountability” and will implement "necessary institutional reforms.” I look forward to seeing concrete actions to this effect, in line with the recommendations that have been made in our reports and by various human rights mechanisms, and my Office stands ready to engage.

I also encourage the swift and public release of the reports of the national Commission of Inquiry that was appointed in January 2021, which I understand will complete its mandate by the end of this year, so that its work and recommendations can be assessed.

A new state of emergency was declared in Sri Lanka on 30 August, with the stated aim of ensuring food security and price controls, amid deepening recession. The emergency regulations are very broad and may further expand the role of the military in civilian functions. The Office will be closely monitoring their application.

I note with interest the President’s recent meeting with some civil society leaders, and I encourage broader dialogue and steps to open Sri Lanka’s civic space. Regrettably, surveillance, intimidation and judicial harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and families of the disappeared has not only continued, but has broadened to a wider spectrum of students, academics, medical professionals and religious leaders critical of government policies. Several peaceful protests and commemorations have been met with excessive use of force and the arrest or detention of demonstrators in quarantine centres. The President’s recent pardon of a former member of parliament, Duminda Silva, who was convicted for killing a politician in 2011, also risks eroding confidence in the rule of law and judicial process.

In June, 16 prisoners who had been convicted under the problematic Prevention of Terrorism Act, and who were nearing the end of their sentences, were pardoned. An Advisory Board has been established to which detainees under the Act can apply for their cases to be reviewed, and I urge a speedy resolution to these long-standing cases.

The Government has reaffirmed its intention to revisit the Act and established a Cabinet sub-committee for this purpose. However I am deeply concerned about the continued use of the Act to arrest and detain people.

A National Policy for Reparations was approved in August, and reparation payments and reconciliation programs have continued. The Office of Missing Persons has also continued to operate – with a sixth regional office opened in Kilinochchi – but it needs to inspire confidence among victims. I stress again the importance of transparent, victim-centred and gender sensitive approaches, and that reparations programs must be accompanied by broader truth and justice measures.

I note also that last month, the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions decided to initiate a special review of the national Human Rights Commission to determine its compliance with the Paris Principles, indicating its concerns about the appointment process of the Commission and its effectiveness in discharging its human rights mandate.

I encourage Council members to continue paying close attention to developments in Sri Lanka, and to seek credible progress in advancing reconciliation, accountability and human rights.”

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