Wednesday, 06 September 2023 23:24

Accountability key to Sri Lanka’s future: UN rights chief

The UN human rights office (OHCHR) on Wednesday emphasized the pressing need for Sri Lanka to address its accountability deficit, ranging from war crimes to rights violations, corruption and abuse of power.



UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, stressed the urgency of addressing these challenges if the country is to move forward, recalling the 2022 anti-Government protests demanding a fairer and more inclusive society.

“But the potential for a historic transformation that would address long-standing challenges is far from being realized.”

The UN rights chief’s message coincides with the launch of a new report documenting the country’s human rights situation. It outlines the challenges and opportunities to address them, in the wake of the 2022 economic crisis.

Families search for truth

Although the brutal decades-long civil war ended more than 14 years ago, tens of thousands of victims and their families in Sri Lanka still seek truth and justice.

While the Government proposed a new truth-seeking mechanism, meaningful and transparent consultations with victims and civil society are essential for the success of any transitional justice process, OHCHR said.

This includes putting an end to all forms of harassment and unlawful surveillance, and supporting initiatives to acknowledge and memorialize victims’ experiences.

“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,” Mr. Türk said.

Concerns over proposed laws

The report raises concerns over proposed new laws, such as the Anti-Terrorism Bill before parliament and legislation to regulate broadcasting.

It also highlights the need for comprehensive security sector reform, including reduced military spending and a cut in military personnel in areas affected by armed conflict.

The report also calls on the authorities to accelerate investigations and prosecutions into emblematic cases of human rights violations, as well as the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, which claimed 269 lives and injured over 500.

© UNICEF/Weerasinghe
In July 2022, autorickshaws wait in a long queue at a Sri Lankan fuel station, amidst a severe economic crisis.

Economic crisis

The report summarizes the impact of the 2022 economic crisis on the human rights and well-being of Sri Lankans.

The crisis resulted in severe shortages in fuel, electricity, food, medicines, and other essential items. While some stabilization occurred in 2023, many experienced a sharp decline in living standards, and the country still grapples with a heavy debt burden.

Poverty has almost doubled – from 13 per cent in 2021 to 25 per cent in 2022, according to World Bank estimates, and it is projected to further rise to 27.4 per cent this year, and remain over 25 per cent for the next few years.

Women have borne a “distinct impact” post-crisis, as many are primarily engaged in informal sectors of the economy and face limited access to social protection, said OHCHR.

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Food and education

Food insecurity and access to health and education also remain major concerns.

Across the country, about 37 per cent of households faced acute food insecurity in November 2022, leading to a significant number of families buying cheaper less nutritious food and sometimes skipping meals altogether, leading to fears of rising malnutrition among children.

Mental health has also been affected as people face multiple stresses due to price increases, scarcity and loss of income.

Access to education is also at risk, amid rising truancy due to competing economic needs, and higher transport and food costs.

Children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds and girls are particularly vulnerable, OHCHR noted.

Recommendations

The report outlines a series of recommendations, including a call on the Government to guarantee people’s economic and social rights, tackle corruption and create an enabling environment for a successful and sustainable transitional justice process.

It also urges increased women’s participation in political life and decision-making, as well as ensuring free and fair elections at all levels of government.

The report also calls on the international community to support effective and meaningful transitional justice processes, in compliance with international norms, and targeted sanctions against those credibly alleged to have perpetrated gross human rights violations.