UN Human Rights Chief puts out scathing report on Sri Lanka

Geneva – September 10, 2023
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk published a report on September 6,
2023 on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka highlighting the prevailing accountability deficit and lack
of enabling environment for reconciliation measures. The report provides an update on the work of
the Sri Lanka Accountability Project established by his Office (OHCHR) pursuant to UNHRC
resolutions 46/1 and 51/1.

The Australian Tamil Congress, (ATC), British Tamils Forum (BTF), Irish Tamils Forum, Solidarity
Group for Peace & Justice, South Africa (SGPG), Swiss Tamil Action Group (STAG) and the United
States Tamil Action Group (USTAG) welcome the thorough report by OHCHR and thank the team
constituting the Sri Lanka Accountability Project for their meticulous work. While highlighting key
aspects of the report we also intend to point out a few deficiencies to be addressed.

We strongly support the assertion that “Lack of accountability at all levels remains the fundamental
human rights problem” in Sri Lanka, while we believe that Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism which results
in extreme centralization of power is the fundamental political issue.

We greatly appreciate the suggestion by the High Commissioner that bilateral and multilateral
efforts to assist Sri Lanka in the current economic crisis must consider “economic, social and cultural
rights and pay special attention to issues of accountability, governance and diversity when negotiating
or implementing support programs.”

The report calls on the Government of Sri Lanka to develop a coherent time-bound plan for post-war
transitional justice that connects the elements of truth, accountability, redress, and non-recurrence. We
appreciate the calls throughout the report for victim participation and for consideration of the needs of
victims. The report, however, fails to explicitly call for a political solution to the national question
guaranteeing non-recurrence perhaps through the good offices of countries like India and the United
States which helped Sri Lanka to emerge from the recent economic crisis.

The failure to repeal or issue a moratorium on use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act is highlighted. The
deficiencies in the proposed replacement Anti-Terrorism Bill were pointed out by a joint communique
issued by ten UN Special Rapporteurs. Some Appeal Court and High Courts continue to sentence PTA detainees to disproportionately long jail terms, ignoring even the 15 years of pretrial detentions
suffered by some detainees.

Land disputes between the State and citizens from local communities continue to be reported, with 26
such disputes recorded between October 2022 and June 2023, mostly in the Tamil-majority Northern
and Eastern provinces. Over the reporting period, the main state actors involved were the Army (10
cases), the Department of Archaeology (six cases) and the Mahaweli Authority (five cases). However,
the report fails to document the frequent occurrences of Buddhistisation in Tamil areas including
building of Buddhist temples, destroying Hindu deities, and preventing Hindu religious rites. These illegal
acts – supported implicitly or explicitly by state forces – have serious potential to deteriorate into
communal violence. Land disputes with the direct or indirect involvement of the state have been a
feature of the national question for decades and were a direct cause of the war as Tamils interpret such
disputes as efforts to change the demography of the North and East to dilute Tamil political
representation and shrink the ‘areas of historical habitation of Sri Lankan Tamil speaking peoples.’ 1

We welcome the importance given in the report to security sector reform. The Sri Lanka government
gave commitments to OHCHR to reduce the troop strength of the Army from 208,000 to 135,000 by
2024 and to 100,000 by 2030. The report further urged that “These measures should be accompanied
by deeper security sector reform, including a comprehensive and transparent vetting process that
removes individuals and disbands units that have been implicated in serious human rights or
international humanitarian law violations. It should also comprise the phasing out of military
presence from former conflict areas, where current deployments seem disproportionate to current
security requirements.” On the ground, however, we have not seen any signs of troop demobilization
and the people in the NorthEast continue to live under a suffocating military presence dominating their
lives and livelihoods.

The report details Sri Lanka government attempts to set up a truth-seeking mechanism. It points out
that without proper consultations with victims and stakeholders and without an enabling environment
such a mechanism cannot achieve its goals. “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,” Türk said, in a press release accompanying the report. Nine leading Human rights
organizations including the ICJ, HRW and Amnesty released a statement denouncing the flawed
truth-seeking body as currently constituted. Our organizations and the victim community in Sri
Lanka reject the so-called truth-seeking mechanism and express great reservation that it is an
attempt by the Sri Lanka government to delay and distract the OHCHR’s Accountability Project.

The OHCHR report gives visibility to the mandated work of the Sri Lanka Accountability Project in
Collecting, consolidating, analysing and preserving information and evidence, Advocating for Victims and
Survivors, Supporting relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with
competent jurisdiction, and Developing possible strategies for future accountability processes. The team
had consultations with over 120 civil society organizations and women groups in and outside of Sri
Lanka. We are heartened to hear that the Project briefed representatives from 29 States drawn from
national prosecutorial authorities and/or law enforcement agencies on the mandate and work of the project, and to explore potential collaboration. We urge swift action towards strong legal action against
perpetrators of serious international crimes in all potential justice mechanisms.

We learn from the report that four priority areas were selected for investigation: (1) unlawful killings, (2)
sexual and gender-based violence and torture in detention settings, (3) enforced disappearances and (4)
violations against and affecting children, including the recruitment and use of children in hostilities.
While this is a good list, it leaves out one important category of violations. We urge OHCHR and the
Project team to investigate incidents of large-scale civilian killings spanning decades, including aerial
bombing of schools, churches and temples, the Kumuthini boat massacre (1985), the many massacres in
the East including Sathurukondan (1990), Kumarapuram (1996), the 1983 Black July pogrom, the use of
cluster munitions, etc. It is critical to analyze the systemic nature of the war crimes, crimes against
humanity and genocide committed against the Tamils before, during and after the war in order to
develop strategies for accountability, along with processes and avenues to ensure non-recurrence.

While the report provides a window into the work done by the Sri Lanka Accountability Project, we are
disappointed not learning about concrete suggestions or referrals for prosecution based on the two and
a half years of their work. The victims should not be left waiting till next September to see some interim
results on accountability.

We appreciate the High Commissioner reiterating the recommendations made in reports to the Human
Rights Council and Member States in 2021 and 2022. We recall that one such recommendation by
former High Commissioner Michele Bachelet on January 12, 2021 stated: “Member States have a
number of options to advance criminal accountability… In addition to taking steps towards the referral
of the situation in Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court, Member States can actively pursue
investigation and prosecution of international crimes before their own national courts, including under
the principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction.”

The recent calls by many in the Sinhala polity, including the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, for
an international investigation following allegations by the UK’s Channel 4 on the ‘Easter Bombings’ with
respect to the complicity of the same cast of perpetrators involved in serious international crimes
against the Tamil people during and after the war – namely the highest echelons of the Sri Lankan
regime, military, and Intelligence personnel – adds impetus to the High Commissioner’s
recommendations. We urge that these calls strengthen the resolve of Member States that domestic
accountability in Sri Lanka is not possible and a strong international process is essential.

The High Commissioner recommends Sri Lanka to “Invite OHCHR to strengthen its country presence.”
We fully endorse this call to increase OHCHR’s country presence in Sri Lanka and urge OHCHR to protect
and strengthen the efforts of human rights defenders, to help in tracing the missing and to offer
assistance in exhuming mass graves and identifying remains following international best practices.

Finally, we look forward to the High Commissioner’s reports on Sri Lanka over the coming year, urge
HRC member states to fully take advantage of the Sri Lanka Accountability Project’s efforts to provide
judiciable material to victims and courts for justice for the serious international crimes committed in Sri
Lanka, and look forward to the Project’s recommendations to the Human Rights Council for future
avenues for justice to be delivered at the 57 th session in September 2024.
For more information, please contact:

Mr. Krish Illungko
Chairperson, Australian Tamil Congress (ATC)
V. Ravi Kumar
General Secretary, British Tamils Forum (BTF)

Irish Tamils Forum (ITF)

Solidarity Group for Peace and Justice (SGPJ –
South Africa)

Swiss Tamil Action Group (STAG)


Anandaraj Ponnambalam
President, United States Tamil Action Group

20230910 Joint Tamil Diaspora PR on OHCHR Report on Sri Lanka Fn

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